Gonzaga: What Gives?

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 25th, 2014

Gonzaga has been playing Division I basketball for 57 years. In that time, they’ve made 17 NCAA Tournaments. Sixteen of those 17 appearances have occurred consecutively over the last 16 years. And Mark Few has been the head coach for 15 of those. Just to be clear: Mark Few has taken Gonzaga to 15 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, a streak which accounts for 15 of the program’s 17 tournament appearances in school history. After the Zags’ big Elite Eight breakout surprise in 1999, Few entered as head coach and took the Bulldogs to the Sweet Sixteen in the following two seasons, marking three straight appearances in the Tournament’s second weekend for the burgeoning program. In the 12 years since the run from 1999-2001, they’ve made it to just two more Sweet Sixteens, losing in heartbreaking fashion to eventual national runner-up UCLA in 2006, then getting blown out by eventual national champion North Carolina in 2009.

Gonzaga Basketball Is Defined By The Mark Few Era (AP)

Gonzaga Basketball Is Defined By The Mark Few Era. (AP)

Mixed in there, however, are more underachievements based on seed line than overachievements: a 2002 first round loss as a #6 seed; a 2004 round of 32 loss as a #2 seed; a 2005 round of 32 loss as a #3 seed; and most famously, last year’s round of 32 loss as a #1 seed. Only twice has Gonzaga outperformed its seed in the NCAA Tournament since 2001 — that took place in 2003 where they won one game as a #9 seed (note that the Zags also then gave #1 seed Arizona one hell of a game in the next round), and in 2011 when they won a single game as a #11 seed.

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After Rocky Season, WCC Champs Gonzaga Back in Familiar Role of Underdog

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 14th, 2014

After securing a sweep of the WCC regular season and tournament titles on Tuesday night, Gonzaga should land somewhere on the #7-#10 seed lines on Selection Sunday. Obviously, that means there is a decent chance that the Zags will be a favorite in the round of 64, but a run deep into March is widely considered unlikely for Mark Few’s team this season. The “soft” label that has lingered around the program for years is still there, and the stench of a second-round loss as a #1 seed last season hasn’t fully dissipated, either. Critics also like to point to a paper resume that is devoid of marquee wins, which, to a large extent, is fair. The Gonzaga profile was so toothless that it kept the Zags out of NCAA Tournament lock territory all the way into the WCC Tournament, despite a 25-win regular season. Not exactly the typical Gonzaga treatment, eh? However, so-so profile and lack of national believers notwithstanding, Gonzaga may actually be well-positioned for an NCAA Tournament push, albeit from a lower seed line. Perhaps, after all these years, the slipper still fits.

The Zags Enter The NCAA Tournament Off The Radar, And Don't Think That They Mind

The Zags Enter The NCAA Tournament Off The Radar, And Don’t Think That They Mind

At the time, Gonzaga’s second round loss to Wichita State a year ago seemed to validate all the conversation about the Zags being overrated. Nevermind that Wichita State ended up rolling through the entire West region on the way to the Final Four, or that Gonzaga extended its streak of years with a Tournament win to five (Kansas and Syracuse are the only other programs with wins in each of the last five Dances). Suddenly Gonzaga was a chronic March failure that beat up on a weak mid-major conference every season before getting exposed by “real” teams. After a season in the national spotlight, the timing of the upset loss to the Shockers was less than ideal, but the overreaction to it was extreme. One loss does not define a program – particularly one with a lengthy, consistent track record like Gonzaga.

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Bracket Prep: Mount St. Mary’s, Milwaukee, Gonzaga, North Dakota State

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 12th, 2014

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As we move through Championship Week, we’ll continue to bring you short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket next week. Tournament dreams became a reality for four more teams last night. Here’s what you need to know about the most recent quartet of bid-winners.

Mount St. Mary’s

Mount St. Mary's, .500 Record In Tow, Is Dancing. They Are Your NEC Champions.

Mount St. Mary’s, .500 Record In Tow, Is Dancing. They Are Your NEC Champions.

  • NEC Champion (16-16, 12-7)
  • RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #216/#207/#220
  • Adjusted Scoring Margin = -3.6
  • Likely NCAA Seed: #16 (First Four)

Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.

  1. So much for the relative tranquility of the first few days of Championship Week (shouldn’t it really be called “Championship Ten Days”?). Mount St. Mary’s capped off an improbable NEC tournament run by thrashing top seed Robert Morris on their home floor, 88-71, sending the 16-16 Mountaineers to a likely date in the First Four in Dayton. If the Colonials still don’t know what happened tonight, the Mountaineers shot 61% from the floor, made 8-18 threes, and despite being one of the worst rebounding teams in America, found a way to outboard RMU (despite nine missed MSM free throws). Upsets happen in March, but the ease with which Mount St. Mary’s overcame their favored foe last night was truly shocking.
  2. For a team that finished 9-7 in the NEC, the Mountaineers aren’t that bad, I guess? Mount St. Mary’s was second best in offensive efficiency during conference play, and a modestly impressive 123rd nationally for the season. In averaging 70.1 possessions per game (33rd in the nation), MSM also has shown they don’t mind getting out in transition, where guards Rashad Whack (17.6 PPG, 79 3PM) and Julian Norfleet (17.5 PPG, 5.5 APG) thrive. But unlike many small conference teams, the Mountaineers pair their arsenal of pint-sized guards with a true post player, seven footer Taylor Danaher (6.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.3 BPG). Danaher won’t soon be confused with Dwight Howard, but his sizable presence won’t hurt when matching up with the bigger teams likely to inhabit the top seed lines.
  3. Mount St. Mary’s defends the three-point stripe reasonably well, but opponents should be able to find plenty of success inside the arc against the Mounts. MSM regular season foes shot 54.5% on two-point field goals in the regular season, which led to a field-day or three for the power conference teams on the November-December schedule. BYU went for 109, Texas Tech 100, and Michigan State 98 against the Mountaineers – all, of course, in resounding victories. Hard to believe much will be different if MSM finds their way into the 64-team portion of the Tournament.

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Saint Mary’s and San Francisco Depart Vegas on Markedly Different Paths

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 11th, 2014

Both Saint Mary’s and San Francisco will be invited to participate in one of the other national postseason tournaments, but while their seasons may not be officially over, Monday night brought a close to any improbable NCAA Tournament dreams. Saint Mary’s was routed (again) by Gonzaga in one WCC semifinal, while San Francisco came up a play or two short versus BYU in the other, ultimately falling to Tyler Haws and the Cougars in overtime, 79-77. There are plenty of similarities on a paper resume between SMC and USF this season (both have RPIs in the 60s and 11 losses each), but that resemblance belies the current state of affairs of Bay Area WCC hoops. It would seem that Monday’s mode of exit is a far better illustration of where these two programs currently sit – and where they are headed. The young Dons appear ready to compete like they did in Vegas (and really, all season) on a consistent basis moving forward, but for their neighbors acros the San Francisco Bay in Moraga, the future may not be as bright. The talent pool has dried up for Randy Bennett and the Gaels, and the proudest era in Saint Mary’s basketball history could be on the verge of extinction.

Stephen Holt's Departure Will Make Like More Difficult For Randy Bennett And The Gaels Next Season. Is The Golden Era Of Saint Mary's Basketball Nearly Finished?

Stephen Holt’s Departure Will Make Like More Difficult For Randy Bennett And The Gaels Next Season. Is The Golden Era Of Saint Mary’s Basketball Nearly Finished?

We’ll take the good news before the bad and discuss USF first. Progress has been slow since Rex Walters arrived in 2008, but the Dons have increased their win total in every season except 2012-13 under the former NBA journeyman and former Jayhawk. Incremental growth ran a bit faster this season, as Walters’ team really began showing signs of life. The Dons went 13-5 in a WCC that finished ninth in conference RPI, and are set to return their entire rotation next season save for leading scorer Cole Dickerson. Dickerson’s crafty offensive game will surely be missed in 2014-15, but expectations should justly be enhanced with the Dons returning so much proven talent.

After winning back-to-back national titles in the 50s with two of the greatest players in basketball history leading the way, USF has made the NCAA Tournament just one time in the past three decades, and the last Don to play in the NBA retired more than 20 years ago. It’s been a long, confusing dry spell for a tradition-laden program, indeed. There isn’t any NBA talent on this USF roster (or next year’s, most likely), but as the program ascends the ranks of the WCC standings, the NCAA Tournament should again be within reach for Walters’ team. That statement alone constitutes progress, but anyone who caught a glimpse of this San Francisco team – either on Monday night or throughout its 13-win conference campaign – could tell you that things are looking up in the City by the Bay.

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Increasingly Balanced WCC Could Have Bright Future Ahead

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 10th, 2014

Let’s play a little word association game. I say WCC, you say… Gonzaga – right? But when I say Gonzaga, there are bound to be a dozen or so words that will escape your lips before you say WCC. This only makes sense, because for as long as anyone can remember, Gonzaga has been the WCC. Or, at the very least, that interchangeability has served as a quick and easy (and fairly accurate) mental shortcut. But here in 2013-14, the times are a changin’ as Gonzaga has shown more fragility than it has in a long while, but more importantly, the rest of the conference has taken a significant step forward.

BYU Is A Big Part Of The More Balanced West Coast Conference We Have Seen This Year. The Cougars Are Also One Of Many WCC Teams That Should Be Even Better In 2014-15

BYU Is A Big Part Of The More Balanced West Coast Conference We Have Seen This Year. The Cougars Are Also One Of Many WCC Teams That Should Be Even Better In 2014-15.

That pairing of Zag vulnerability and WCC uprising was on full display Saturday night in the WCC quarterfinals, where a Santa Clara team that finished eighth in the league pushed Mark Few’s team to the final buzzer. Gonzaga managed to narrowly escape the Broncos’ challenge (on a David Stockton coast-to-coast layup in the final seconds) and is still the clear favorite to take the WCC Tournament title this week, but are these more balanced days here to stay and flourish in the WCC?

The WCC will likely only send two teams to the 2014 NCAA Tournament (an outside shot at three if Saint Mary’s or San Francisco can steal the WCC Tournament title), but even with Gonzaga slightly down, the league has been better than it has been in a very long time. Their current conference RPI and KenPom ranking of #9 is the best since the 2004-05 season, and there may be even better days ahead. Saint Mary’s core of seniors leaves Randy Bennett’s team vulnerable to a significant drop-off next season (the SMC situation almost demands its own post, honestly), but outside of the Gaels and a senior-laden Pacific team, most every WCC team will return the bulk of its core. The young nuclei around the league have all had their moments this season, and coaching staffs at Pepperdine, San Diego, Portland, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara should all be expecting improved teams to return in 2014-15.

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The RTC Podblast: Other 26 Conference Tourney Preview Edition

Posted by rtmsf on March 4th, 2014

Welcome to March Madness. With the tip-off of the opening round games of the Patriot League Tournament on Monday night — hey, Colgate and Lafayette — Championship Fortnight is already here. To prep ourselves for all of the action among the nation’s Other 26 leagues, the RTC Podblast crew welcomed O26 microwriters Tommy Lemoine (@hoopthink) and Adam Stillman (@adamstillman87) to walk us through some of the top storylines to follow both this week and next. The guys had a good discussion about whether Wichita State will ultimately #cheerfortheears at Arch Madness, which tourneys might produce the most interesting match-ups, and named some players to keep an eye on as we ultimately head toward the NCAA Tournament. Among other things. If you’re at all interested in the non-power leagues, definitely give this preview a listen!

We’re going to be dropping podcasts/podblasts like crazy over the next five weeks of action, so make sure to subscribe to the show on iTunes so that you’ll get all of the episodes immediately downloaded to your listening device.

  • 0:00-4:03 – #cheerfortheears – Three Games Left
  • 4:03-8:55 – Top Five O26 Teams
  • 8:55-10:25 – Conference Tournaments To Be Excited About
  • 10:25-12:03 – Another Year, Another WCC Championship for Gonzaga?
  • 12:03-13:42 – Leagues Primed For Some Conference Tournaments Upsets
  • 13:42-15:38 – Championship Match-Ups to Hope For
  • 15:38-17:33 – Potential Bid Stealers
  • 17:33-19:34 – Future Cinderellas
  • 19:34-21:55 – Players the Nation Will Fall in Love With
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O26 Game of the Week: Saint Louis-VCU Pt. II, Iona-Manhattan & More…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 27th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

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

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

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

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

Four More to Watch

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#rushthetrip Day 16: Marriott Center Experience Uniquely Amazing

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 22nd, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

With Thursday night’s visit to Provo for Gonzaga vs. BYU, the trip was poised to wrap up much like it had started 16 days ago in The Pit – in one of college basketball’s loudest and greatest gymnasiums. BYU’s Marriott Center is the sixth largest home arena in the country and is oft-described as one of the toughest places to play out West. Still, though, I was unsure of what to expect. My curiosity/ignorance extended beyond the Marriott Center to both the university and Provo; the Mormon presence in town (98% LDS) would obviously be influential, but where exactly would the manifestations of faith appear in this college town – and college basketball atmosphere?

BYU's Marriott Center Has Long Been Considered An Unwelcoming Locale For Visitors, But Could It Still Be Underrated? I Vote Yes.

BYU’s Marriott Center Has Long Been Considered An Unwelcoming Locale For Visitors, But Could It Still Be Underrated? I Vote Yes.

Everyone was extremely nice in town. Provo is not the first place I’ve made this observation about, but the kindness here is ubiquitous enough to disarm someone unused to it (me). It didn’t matter if they were pumping gas or cleaning hotel rooms — everyone seemed legitimately happy with whatever it was they were doing at the time I ran across them. While it did feel a bit contrived at times, the friendliness was refreshing and welcomed by a weary traveler nearing the end of his journey.

After a day of familiarizing myself with the affable denizens of Provo, I entered the Marriott Center expecting 20,000 of the most genteel college basketball fans you could find. Boy, was I wrong. I don’t want to say that the BYU faithful offered the most aggressive display of ref-riding I’ve ever seen, but they didn’t miss the mark by much. There were a couple of shaky pro-Gonzaga calls early, but the Cougars wound up +5 in free throw attempts, and Gonzaga bigs Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski managed only 20 and 19 minutes, respectively, due to foul trouble. So while I didn’t find significant merit in the boisterous shouts of the fans, their relentlessness was both admirable and effective. More than anything else, home court advantage is for shifting close decisions from the referees in favor of your team; I cannot imagine an official being unaffected in the environment I witnessed there. I’m no Mormon, but I’m now pretty confident that LDS doctrines must not include any prohibition relating to the verbal treatment of basketball referees.

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O26 Game of the Week: SDSU at The Pit, Gonzaga-BYU, Others…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 19th, 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.

San Diego State (22-2) at New Mexico (19-5) – 10:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday

This game — this week — is a huge one for New Mexico. If it can avenge an early loss to UNLV tonight in Las Vegas, Craig Neal’s team will return home on Saturday with a chance to pull even with San Diego State atop the Mountain West standings and solidify itself as an NCAA Tournament lock. Up to this point, the only major feather in the Lobos’ cap is a win over Cincinnati back in early December, so beating the Aztecs this weekend would not only shake up the conference race, it would also carry serious resume-boosting implications. Not to mention bragging rights in a match-up that features two of the best fan bases west of the Mississippi.

Kendall Williams and the Lobos  welcome San Diego State to the Pit on Saturday. (Eric Draper The Associated Press)

Kendall Williams and the Lobos welcome San Diego State to the Pit on Saturday. (Eric Draper The Associated Press)

In fact, considering how closely matched the game is on paper, New Mexico’s 15,000-plus screaming fans might very well become a deciding factor when it’s all said and done. According to KenPom, the Lobos are pegged as the slight favorites with a win probability of 54 percent, a figure that will dip considerably when they head to San Diego in early March. But first they get to host the Aztecs in The Pit, their menacing, subterranean arena in which they boast an all-time winning mark well over 80 percent. Not many visiting teams escape unscathed. For San Diego State fans, the silver lining is this: Steve Fisher units have gone an admirable 6-8 in the daunting stadium since he took over in 1999.

Of course, the outcome will ultimately be decided on the court, and there, each team will have distinct advantages. For New Mexico, the ability to get interior scoring from its imposing frontcourt duo of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow will be critical. The big men combined to average 36 points and 15 rebounds in the Lobos’ two victories over the Aztecs last year; in the one loss, they mustered just two points and nine boards total. Paint production will be especially important considering that opposing guards Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard are stingy perimeter defenders, capable of minimizing Kendall Williams’ usually-considerable offensive production. San Diego State, meanwhile, hopes to continue playing the excellent team defense that has limited opponents to around 0.94 points per possession this season, good for 17th in the country. They are long, fast, physical and will suffocate teams that are ill-prepared. On the other end, the Aztecs are led by the gifted Thames — who’s likely to win Mountain West Player of the Year — and the team-wide ability to garner second-chance looks by crashing the offensive glass. Forwards Josh Davis and J.J. O’Brien must out-bang the sizable New Mexico frontcourt if San Diego State hopes to generate enough offense to survive Albuquerque. The game will be high-stakes and high-energy, so flip to The Deuce and check it out when Saturday night rolls around.

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O26 Game of the Week: VCU Visits Saint Louis in Defensive Clash

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 12th, 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.

Virginia Commonwealth (19-5) at Saint Louis (22-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday

This game punctuates what could be a decisive week in the Atlantic 10. If VCU can take down George Washington on Wednesday night, it will claim sole possession of second place and remain just two games back of Saint Louis heading into Saturday. A victory would pull Shaka Smart’s club within a game of the top spot, setting the stage for a crucial rematch on March 1st; a loss would give the Billikens an overwhelming advantage over the rest of the league, nearly guaranteeing a second-straight regular season title. And conference implications aside, this game offers each team—both stingy-defensive units with second-weekend potential—the opportunity to notch a resume-bolstering victory just one month out from Selection Sunday. A lot will be at stake in Chaifetz Arena.

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

If last year was any indication, Saint Louis should have no problem handling VCU and its HAVOC defense, which is predicated on forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition. In their only regular season meeting of 2013, the Billikens—who run a slow-paced, ball-control offense—broke the Rams’ press time after time down the floor, committing just eight turnovers and getting countless easy looks under the basket. In turn, VCU was unable to get anything in the way of transition buckets—a huge problem against a dominant half-court defense adept at taking away the three point shot, the Rams’ next-best scoring method. Saint Louis coasted to a 14-point home victory in that one and validated it a month later in the A-10 Championship game, again staving off VCU’s pressure on its way to claiming the league’s postseason crown.

So, then, what hope could the Rams possibly have this year, on the road against virtually the same team? Well, for starters, the Billikens have been skating on the thin ice in recent weeks. Three of their last five games have been one possession contests in the final minute of regulation, including an overtime home victory over then-winless George Mason. They won all three—part of a current 16-game winning streak—but showed slight vulnerabilities on defense and at times struggled to score. If Saint Louis continues playing with fire, odds say it will eventually get burned. Plus, this season’s Billikens aren’t quite the offensive team they were a year ago (scoring at a modestly lower rate), and VCU is even better on defense. Anytime a middle-of-the-pack offense meets an elite defense, the former is probably going to have trouble at various points in the game. Of course, the same can be said for VCU’s offense and Saint Louis’ defense, but the point remains: the Rams certainly have a chance. And if they do manage to pull one out on the road, the A-10 will become a whole lot more interesting.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Saint Joseph’s, Tyler Haws, Eddie Payne and CCSU

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 5th, 2014

Last week was incredibly entertaining all across the spectrum of college hoops, featuring numerous upsets and several finishes that made our jaws drop. Let’s pass out a few accolades to those O26 teams, players and coaches who got the job done amid all the craziness.

Langston Galloway's big shot helped spark a big week for Saint Joseph's. (SJU Athletic Communications)

Langston Galloway’s big shot helped spark a big week for Saint Joseph’s. (SJU Athletic Communications)

O26 Team of the Week

Saint Joseph’s. This current week might actually have larger implications for Saint Joseph’s, what with home games against Saint Louis and VCU, but the Hawks’ effort last week — winning on the road at Dayton and handling UMass in Hagan Area — still deserves significant recognition. Phil Martelli’s club seemed destined for a second straight loss last Wednesday against the Flyers, trailing at halftime and completely unable to get things going offensively (perhaps a carry-over from the previous game at Richmond). It would have made for devastating, potentially demoralizing, defeat, considering the upcoming slate. Then the second half began, and everything changed. The Hawks charged out of the locker room with a 27-7 run to go up 15 points with around 10 minutes to play, leaving the Dayton crowd stunned and silenced. The home team did eventually make a comeback, forcing a slew of turnovers and tying the game with 11 seconds on the clock, but Saint Joseph’s guard Langston Galloway would not allow this opportunity to slip by, not with a season potentially in the balance: The senior used a ball screen at the top of the key, found just enough space on the right wing and banked in a three-pointer with 1.8 seconds left, finishing off the Flyers and improving his club’s record to 4-2 in Atlantic 10 play.

Saturday’s game against UMass featured similar drama, but was far more redemptive for the Hawks. A month earlier, they had played well but blew a late lead against the Minutemen in Amherst, prompting the terrific Martelli line, “It’s a big-boy game, and we weren’t big enough.” His team was more than big enough this time aroun — at least for the first 38 minutes — as it outworked Derek Kellogg’s group on both ends of the floor and opened up a 16-point margin early in the second half. But just like three days before, Saint Joseph’s let a game seemingly well in hand nearly get away, as UMass point guard Chaz Williams spearheaded a late, furious charge to tie things up with 30 seconds remaining. The Hawks stepped up once again, draining five key free throws and forcing one huge turnover to put away the Minutemen and salvage hopes for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. It was the perfect culmination to a pivotal week for the Hawks, both a testament to their fortitude and proof of their staying power in the Atlantic 10.

Honorable Mentions: Lehigh (2-0: vs. Bucknell; @Boston University); Davidson (2-0: vs. Chattanooga; vs. The Citadel); Ohio (2-0: vs. Central Michigan; vs. Toledo)

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O26 Game of the Week: MAC on the Line as Toledo Faces Ohio

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 29th, 2014

As conference hierarchies begin taking shape and teams gear up for the stretch run, this week offers a whole host of compelling O26 contests that are sure to impact the picture come March. Let’s take a look at the most intriguing match-ups on tap.

Game of the Week

Toledo (17-2) at Ohio (14-5) – 1:00 PM ET, ESPNU, Saturday.

The Bobcats host the 17-2 Rockets on Saturday in a huge MAC tilt. (John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer)

The Bobcats host the 17-2 Rockets on Saturday in a huge MAC tilt. (John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer)

Efficient offense meets stingy defense in what could very well be a preview of the MAC Championship game on March 15. After losing at home to a gritty, defensive-minded Bowling Green group last Wednesday night, Ohio again found itself in serious trouble at Eastern Michigan last Saturday, trailing by 13 points late and completely unable to generate baskets against the Eagles’ 2-3 zone. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Bobcats ripped off 20 points in the final eight minutes — including a 12-0 run to take their first and final lead — and stunned EMU to remain a game back of Akron for the MAC East’s top spot.  It was a big win for Jim Christian’s crew, but Saturday’s contest will be a different beast altogether.  For all of the conference’s tough defensive teams, Toledo is the stand-alone offensive power, ranking 11th nationally in offensive efficiency and featuring five starters each within the top 500 in offensive rating. That ability to score has helped the Rockets to a 5-1 conference record and a stellar 17-2 mark overall, among the best in the entire country.

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