2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week 13

Posted by Walker Carey on February 13th, 2017

Another week of the college basketball season has come and gone, and with it a little more clarity has been revealed regarding the group of college basketball’s top teams. Duke and UCLA both showed on Thursday night that they must be included in the discussion. The Blue Devils, whose dramatically volatile season has been thoroughly documented, stayed on the winning course by earning an 86-78 victory over arch-rival North Carolina. The Bruins earned some revenge from an early Pac-12 loss to Oregon by riding its home crowd and a rejuvenated defensive effort to an impressive 82-79 comeback win. February is normally the month where elite teams begin to separate themselves from the pack, so it will be interesting to observe whether UCLA and Duke, along with a handful of others above them in the rankings, are ready to make a push. There are many opportunities for teams to earn impressive wins and bolster their NCAA Tournament résumés. It just comes down to which teams will actually take advantage of those opportunities. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump.

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

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It’s Time to Take Illinois State Seriously

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 29th, 2017

Trailing by four points at halftime against Southern Illinois on January 11, Illinois State coach Dan Muller provided blunt analysis coming out of the locker room. “They out-competed us to start the game. I thought they were more physical,” he said. “We gotta play tougher.” And play tougher his team did. The Redbirds promptly squashed Southern Illinois’ hopes for the home upset, holding the Salukis to just six points over the opening 10:33 of the second half. It was one of eight games this season in which Muller’s team has held its opponent to eight points or fewer over the course of a 10-minute “quarter,” a testament to Illinois State’s relentless, swarming defense. With an improved offense to boot, it’s also a reason why the Redbirds are a legitimate threat to end Wichita State’s reign in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Deontae Hawkins and the Redbirds are the real deal this season. (Jasen Vinlove – USA TODAY Sports)

Illinois State enters today 10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, a byproduct of not allowing an opponent to score over a point per possession since December 18. During that 12-game stretch, in fact, only two opponents have mustered better than 40 percent shooting against the Redbirds from inside the arc. How has Muller’s group—a top-75 defense last season—gone from good to elite? The answer boils down to quickness, interior length and discipline. In the backcourt, guards Paris Lee and Tony Wills possess tremendous lateral quickness, preventing ball-handlers from beating them off the dribble with any kind of regularity. Lee is a two-time member of the MVC All-Defensive Team; Wills—new to the starting lineup—is considered by Muller to be among the best perimeter defenders in the country. They do a masterful job of keeping players in front of them, even on switches. The Redbirds’ frontcourt, meanwhile, excels at sealing off gaps and turning the paint into an impassible wall. Juniors MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins provide quickness and athleticism, while sophomore contributors Phil Fayne (6’9″) and Daouda Ndiaye (7’1″) bring the size.

And yet, Illinois State isn’t a pack-line unit content with merely denying entry into the lane. Instead, they’re extremely active and aggressive both on the perimeter and near the basket, constantly slapping at the ball and often mixing up defenses to confuse opponents. The Redbirds rank among the top 40 nationally in both defensive block rate and steal rate, and Lee is college basketball’s active career steals leader. During a key stretch late in the first half against Wichita State on January 14, Illinois State switched to zone for five possessions in a row, only to switch back shortly before the half expired. The maneuver, which throw the Shockers into an offensive tailspin (seven-plus minutes without a field goal), enabled Muller’s group to build an insurmountable lead. Throwing analysis aside, Lee recently explained his team’s defensive success more simply: “We play fast. We play hard.”

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O26 Power 13: New Year, New Order, Same Teams on Top

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 4th, 2017

With 2017 now upon us and conference play ramping up, let’s take a step back and reexamine the best of the best across the O26.

1. Gonzaga (14-0) West Coast. Despite its cast of untested newcomers, chemistry and balance have not been an issue for Gonzaga this season. The Bulldogs have cruised to a 14-0 start behind a lineup whose top six scorers all average between 9.3 and 13.8 points per game. In fact, only two players—Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski—get more than 30 minutes per night, thanks largely to the effectiveness of bench players like Zach Collins (10.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG) and Killian Tillie (4.6 PPG). Mark Few’s club has been equally excellent on both sides of the ball, ranking among the top 12 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. That well-roundedness helped the Zags notch three neutral court victories over KenPom top-30 opponents, giving them a non-conference resume that should hold up very well in mid-March. A win or two over Saint Mary’s would only strengthen the cause. The Zags are once again a legitimate Final Four contender.

UT Arlington surprise win at Saint Mary's opened eyes across college basketball. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

UT Arlington surprise win at Saint Mary’s opened eyes across college basketball. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

2. Saint Mary’s (12-1) West Coast. Since its jarring, 14-point home loss to UT Arlington on December 8, Saint Mary’s has held five straight opponents under 0.90 points per possession. That’s a positive sign for a unit that has often struggled to win games when its offense goes cold. The Gaels—with victories at Dayton and Stanford—have also proven their ability to win on the road, which is not something they could claim last season (the NCAA Selection Committee took notice). With one of the nation’s elite point guards (Emmett Naar) and a center, Jock Landale, who currently ranks second in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, it’s hard to imagine this team slipping much in WCC play. January 14, Saint Mary’s first tilt with Gonzaga in Spokane, can’t come soon enough.

3. Wichita State (12-3) – Missouri Valley. The Shockers’ 100-66 dismantling of Bradley on New Year’s Day perhaps best captures this team’s identity. Sixteen different players saw action (Wichita State leads the country in bench minutes); ball movement was crisp (25 assists on 34 made baskets); and the physicality was unrelenting. Put simply, Wichita State is going to pummel a whole bunch of inferior opponents in Missouri Valley play. With an already-tenuous at-large resume, however, one major question remains: can the Shockers avoid losing more than one or two games in the conference? With Illinois State and Missouri State both surging, nothing is guaranteed.

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2016-17 RTC Top 25: Week Four

Posted by Walker Carey on December 12th, 2016

Another week of college basketball is in the books, and with it came three previously-unbeaten squads suffering their first setbacks of the season. First, #16 Butler experienced its first loss last Wednesday when it traveled to Terre Haute to take on a feisty Indiana State squad that emerged victorious with an impressive one-point win. The Bulldogs, however, bounced back on Saturday with a nice home victory over a solid Cincinnati team. #20 Saint Mary’s was the next unbeaten to fall, as the Gaels were thoroughly outplayed in Thursday’s home loss to a pesky UT-Arlington team that already has a win over Texas. Much like Butler, the Gaels bounced back with a home victory over UC Irvine on Sunday. #22 Notre Dame was the final unbeaten of the week to fall, as Mike Brey’s squad gave #1 Villanova all it could handle before bowing out with a 74-66 defeat. There are now only seven unbeatens (#1 Villanova, #4 UCLA, #5 Baylor, #7 Gonzaga, #11 Creighton, #18 South Carolina, and #24 USC) remaining one month into the season, so keep an eye on each of these squads as we move into the holiday season and approach conference play. This week’s Quick N’ Dirty Analysis of the RTC25 is after the jump.

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The Extremely Tough Road Mids Face in Earning #1 Seeds

Posted by Shane McNichol on December 7th, 2016

A quick glance at the top of the college basketball rankings reveals that blue-bloods roam the landscape. Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky and defending champion Villanova all currently inhabit the top 10. For a mid-major school, the path to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is fraught with so many hurdles that it may seem all impossible. This is certainly not a new development, of course, as 37 of the last 40 top seeds in the Big Dance came from a power conference — the exceptions were Wichita State (2014), Gonzaga (2013) and Memphis (2008). Those three teams from the Missouri Valley Conference, West Coast Conference and Conference USA, respectively, entered the NCAA Tournament with a combined record of 98-3, and their three losses came to teams with an average KenPom ranking of #32. Furthermore, each of those non-power conference top seeds played a top-40 non-conference schedule.

Wichita State Parlayed a Perfect Regular Season into a #1 Seed in 2014

Wichita State Parlayed a Perfect Regular Season into a #1 Seed in 2014. (Getty)

The point of this is to show that mid-majors can most certainly earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but their margin for error is next to nothing — the recipe seems to involve running the regular season table or suffering a maximum of one loss. This year’s crop of teams constituting the elite of the non-power conferences is made up of three excellent teams. There are significant barriers to entry, but each of the three has at least a respectable chance of joining the top line conversation on Selection Sunday if their regular season goes exceptionally well. Let’s examine what each team must do to get there.

Gonzaga

Gonzaga is the obvious choice if any mid-major this season has designs on a #1 seed. The Zags are currently #6 in the RPI and already have good-not-great wins over likely NCAA Tournament teams Arizona, San Diego State, Florida and Iowa State. With non-conference games still to come against power conference foes Washington and Tennessee, Gonzaga will have a case to make to the committee on Selection Sunday. An unbeaten regular season that would necessarily include at least two wins over St. Mary’s (currently #3 RPI) could put Mark Few‘s team into contention for a coveted top seed. A one-loss Bulldogs team would have a much tougher time given a non-conference schedule that rates weaker than years past and all the firepower at the top of the polls this season, so anything less than perfection probably means a ceiling of a #2 seed for the Zags.

 

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O26 Feast Week in Review: Winners, Losers and a Little Extra Stuffing

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 29th, 2016

With December nearly upon us and early-season narratives finally taking shape, let’s take a moment to assess which O26 teams fared well—and which didn’t—during last week’s onslaught of holiday hoops.

Winners

Gonzaga looked every bit like a Top 10 team during Feast Week. (Photo: ZagsMBB/Twitter)

Gonzaga looked every bit like a Top 10 team during Feast Week. (ZagsMBB/Twitter)

  • Gonzaga (6-0). Despite blowing a 15-point halftime lead against #21 Iowa State on Sunday, Gonzaga won the AdvoCare Invitational title and now owns one of the best resumes in college basketball. In addition to its early-season drubbing of San Diego State (a win which should only gain in value as the season progresses), the Bulldogs beat previously-undefeated Florida on Friday before taking down the Cyclones. That’s three wins in three weeks over NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, with Arizona, Washington, and MAC favorite Akron still on deck. Assuming Przemek Karnowski continues rounding into form—the now-healthy big man finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists on Sunday—the Zags have the pieces to be one of the deepest, most consistent groups Mark Few has ever had. And that’s saying a lot.

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O26 Early Impressions: Takeaways From First 10 Days

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 21st, 2016

With Feast Week now upon us and two weekends of college hoops in the books, let’s take a step back and reflect on what we’ve learned, which teams have impressed, and why Florida Gulf Coast’s loss at Michigan State was unforgettable… for all the wrong reasons.

Saint Mary's center Jock Landale has been nothing short of excellent. (USATSI)

To this point, Saint Mary’s center Jock Landale has been nothing short of excellent. (USATSI)

The West Coast Conference looks even better than expected. We ranked Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s #1 and #2 in our preseason Power 13, respectively, with Brigham Young also cracking the list. Each has lived up to—perhaps even exceeded—expectations in the early going. In their first major test, the Zags crushed San Diego State by 21 points, holding the Aztecs to 0.69 points per possession and receiving major contributions from freshman big man Zach Collins (16 points on 6-for-7 FG). The Gaels, to their credit, blitzed a talented Nevada team in their opener before earning a huge, resume-bolstering road win at Dayton two games later. The Cougars began their season with a double-digit victory over Ivy League favorite Princeton. As for potential WCC Player of the Year candidates? There may wind up being too many to count. Along with Gonzaga’s cast of contenders, BYU forward Eric Mika (21.0 PPG, 11.0 RPG), back from his two year LDS mission, has looked downright dominant on both ends of the floor through three games. Likewise, Saint Mary’s center Jock Landale (20.0 PPG, 10.0 RPG)—who averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game in 2015-16—has been an offensive revelation for Randy Bennett, in addition to hyper-efficient point guard Emmett Naar (9.0 PPG, 9.7 APG). Strap in for a heavyweight battle atop the WCC.

Rhode Island is the real deal. Sure, the Rams (4-1) lost handily to #1 Duke in Sunday’s Hall of Fame Tip-Off championship game, but they looked like they belonged, and they only got there by grinding out a 76-71 victory over #24 Cincinnati one day earlier. E.C. Matthews (19.5 PPG) appears to be his old self after missing last season with a knee injury, while forward Hassan Martin (4.3 BPG)—who blocked seven shots against Duke—looks well on his way to repeating as Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year. Rhode Island has the grit, the talent, and (finally) the offensive punch to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 1999. The season’s first 10 days have only reaffirmed that.

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O26 Power 13: WCC Teams Reign Supreme

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 8th, 2016

With the start of the regular season now just a few days away, it’s time to examine the O26 programs we think will shine in 2016-17. The school atop this list should come as no surprise.

1. Gonzaga  West Coast. No Kyle Wiltjer (20.4 PPG) or Domantas Sabonis (17.6 PPG, 11.8 RPG) this year? No problem. Like a true power program, Gonzaga simply reloads, adding three high-major transfers — guard Jordan Mathews (California), forward Johnathan Williams III (Missouri) and point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) — along with several elite recruits to an already-talented lineup. Williams-Goss, a second team All-Pac-12 performer in 2014-15, should be a legitimate contender for WCC Player of the Year, while Mathews (41.6% 3FG in 2015-16), Williams (7.1 RPG in 2014-15), and McDonald’s All-American big man Zach Collins add scoring pop and defensive strength to the roster. With guard Josh Perkins (4.1 APG), rim-protector Przemek Karnowski (now healthy) and several other contributors back in the fold, Gonzaga’s ceiling appears higher than ever.

The stakes will be high when Gonzaga and Saint Mary's meet up this season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America)

The stakes will be high when Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s meet up this season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America)

2. Saint Mary’s — West Coast. Based purely on returning production, Saint Mary’s should probably top this list. The Gaels welcome back everyone from a unit that ranked 17th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, including All-WCC point guard Emmett Naar (121.6 Offensive Rating) and forward Dane Pineau (126.2 Offensive Rating), arguably the league’s two most effective players at their positions. But really, the offense is everywhere. Forwards Even Fitzner (8.7 PPG) and Calvin Hermanson (10.9 PPG) each shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc on 130-plus attempts. Joe Rahon (10.7 PPG, 4.5 PPG, 5.4 APG) is among the most versatile guards in the conference. Center Jock Landale — one of five Aussies on the roster — scored 8.0 PPG in just 14.5 minutes per game last season, and should see more of the court this year. This might be Randy Bennett’s best team yet in Moraga. Read the rest of this entry »

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O26 At-Large Watch: Early Season Games With Late Season Impact

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 7th, 2016

With March still several months away, it’s impossible to know which non-conference match-ups will actually prove critical once Selection Sunday arrives. But we here at the Other 26 microsite can certainly take an educated guess. Here are 11 pre-January contests that we think may play a significant role in deciding which O26 contenders will be in position to earn at-large bids on March 12.

Princeton will have several opportunities for resume-defining wins. (goprincetontigers.com)

Princeton has several opportunities for resume-defining wins. (goprincetontigers.com)

  • Princeton at Brigham Young – November 14, 10:00 PM EST, ESPN2. BYU essentially struck out in non-conference play last season and wound up paying the price on Selection Sunday. The Cougars’ margin for error may be even slimmer this year. As it stands, Princeton (#39 RPI in 2015-16) is probably BYU’s best non-league opponent, making this Tip-Off Marathon home tilt critical for Dave Rose’s offensively gifted group. For the Tigers — who also play VCU, California and Monmouth in the season’s first two months — a victory at the Marriott Center would be a giant feather in their non-conference cap.
  • San Diego State at #14 Gonzaga – November 14, 11:59 PM EST, ESPN2. If the Mountain West has another down year, San Diego State could find itself with a very hollow resume come March even if it lives up to its preseason billing. The Aztecs simply don’t have many opportunities for quality non-conference wins. Luckily, the bulk of their roster back, and the addition of two power-conference transfers should enable one of the nation’s most effective defensive teams to become more impactful on offense. Which is to say that Steve Fisher’s group should be able to compete with a talented-but-unproven Gonzaga unit, especially early this season. A win in the Kennel would be huge.

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O26 Stars in the Making: A Non-Comprehensive Guide to Breakout Candidates

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on October 24th, 2016

If you’re reading this post, chances are you already know about Alec Peters, Justin Robinson, E.C. Matthews, and a number of Other 26 players who have cemented themselves among the nation’s best. Look past those names, though, and you will find another tier of players on the fast-track to (relative) stardom. Whether because of increased minutes, increased visibility or both, here is a list of guys outside the power conferences poised to break out in 2016-17.

  • Jeremy Morgan, G – Sr., Northern Iowa – 2015-16: 11.3 PPG, 1.9 SPG: There’s no two ways about it: Northern Iowa’s collapse against Texas A&M last March was a brutal, all-time debacle that will not soon be forgotten in Cedar Falls. If there was a silver lining, though, it’s the fact that Morgan (36 points) accounted for a whopping 41 percent of his team’s scoring that night. In an MVC that saw many of its best players graduate (including the Panthers’ top two scorers), the 6’5″ senior—whose Valley-leading steal rate already earned him All-Defensive Team honors—should see his offensive numbers increase and his national profile rise.
Northern Iowa's Jeremy Morgan should become a household name in 2016-17. (Credit: Getty Images/ Ronald Martinez)

Northern Iowa’s Jeremy Morgan should become a household name in 2016-17. (Getty Images/ Ronald Martinez)

  • Markis McDuffie, F – So., Wichita State – 2015-16: 7.4 PPG. 3.3 RPG: McDuffie is a true breakout candidate in the sense that his minutes and usage are almost surely going to skyrocket this season. The 6’8″ wing showed flashes of brilliance in limited action last year, using his versatility and athleticism to impact nearly every facet of the game. Among Missouri Valley Conference players, McDuffie finished among the top 15 in offensive rating, offensive rebounding percentage, and two-point percentage. As a defender, his length enables him to defend several positions. Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet may be gone, but McDuffie—who will be relied on heavily to help fill that void—has the talent to become another Shockers legend.
  • Cameron Oliver, F – So., Nevada – 2015-16: 13.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.6 BLK: As a freshman, Oliver logged 12 double-doubles and earned Mountain West All-Defensive Team honors before nearly turning pro. His game-changing ability on both ends of the floor helped Nevada turn in its first winning season since 2012, including a CBI championship run on which Oliver averaged 19.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 4.0 blocks per contest. Now in his second year, the powerful, athletic forward will be the unquestioned anchor for a Nevada club with its highest expectations since the Mark Fox era ended in 2009. Expect Oliver to shine, the Wolfpack to contend, and the basketball world to take notice. Just don’t count on him returning to Reno next season if he lives up to expectations.

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