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.
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.
It’s the start of Championship Fortnight, so let’s gear up for the next 13 days of games by breaking down each of the Other 26’s conference tournaments as they get under way.
Big South Tournament
Dates: March 4, 6-8
Site: HTC Center (Conway, SC)
What to expect: Charleston Southern and High Point claimed the top two seeds but positioning probably won’t matter all that much this week. As recently as early February, seven of the Big South’s 11 teams were tied for first place, each showing an ability to defeat (and be defeated by) any other team in the conference. In fact, only once since 2010 has the top overall seed in this tournament actually reached the NCAA Tournament – a testament to the league’s remarkable parity. Both the Bucs and Panthers, along with Winthrop, Radford, Coastal Carolina and perhaps others are good enough to claim the automatic bid. Count on several close games, a few sizable comebacks and maybe even a buzzer-beater, but don’t count on any one team.
Favorite: High Point. High Point is the Big South’s highest-rated team in KenPom and has its best and most athletic player in 6’8’’ forward John Brown. Before losing in triple-overtime at Charleston Southern on Saturday, the Panthers were also the league’s hottest team, having won five games in a row.
Lathan Wells is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between VCU and Winthrop in Richmond.
The VCU Rams have risen to prominence on the national scene over the last several years due largely to their suffocating, full-court defense and long-range shooting. This has proven to be a style that’s been immensely difficult for teams to prepare for, and most opponents don’t possess the stamina or depth to hang with the Rams for an entire game. But in the infant stages of the 2013-14 season, and following a solid 92-71 win over Winthrop Saturday night, VCU has also proven that it has the ability to win games in different fashions. It’s that versatility that makes this team particularly dangerous.
Legitimate options off the bench like JeQuan Lewis make VCU even more potent (credit: collegebasketball.org)
After the Rams capped off a rugged, grinding win in Charlottesville over in-state rival Virginia on Tuesday, it became apparent that taking the tempo away from this team would no longer guarantee success. The Rams fought off a night where they were whistled for 27 personal fouls and had several key players in early foul trouble with its consistent half-court defense. While they weren’t able to press the Cavaliers full-court due to the slow-it-down style Virginia prefers, Shaka Smart’s team’s perseverance on the road against an ACC foe in prime time showed that it has the makeup of a team that can handle in-game adversity. Avoiding the letdown that sometimes plagues teams playing as many youngsters as VCU was an important barometer early in the year, and the Rams were able to get back to pressing full-court and shooting well from downtown in pulling away against Winthrop.
It was just five short seasons ago when Washington State hit an all-time peak. Under the direction of head coach Tony Bennett, the 2007-08 Cougars won the first 14 games they played (including victories against Baylor, Washington, and USC away from home, and Gonzaga in Spokane), finished the season with 24 wins, and earned a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. While there they demolished a solid Winthrop team by 31 and beat fifth-seeded Notre Dame by 20. They even hung with top-seeded North Carolina for a half in the Sweet Sixteen before the Tar Heels pulled away. Behind Pauley Pavilion and the McKale Center, Beasley Coliseum was one of the toughest places to play in the Pac-10, thanks to a large and relentless “ZZU CRU.” You’d have to go back pretty far to find a time when the Cougars were this prominent on a conference and national scale.
The ZZU CRU Made For One Of The Most Intimidating Atmospheres In The Pac-10 (credit: Ninety-Nine Drives)
Excitement in Pullman remained high in the offseason when Bennett turned down an offer to rebuild the Indiana program. However, that would be one of the final good things to happen to the team in the last five years. The losses of Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, and Robbie Cowgill proved to be too much to overcome, and Washington State ended the 2008-09 season by bowing out in the first round of the NIT. With Taylor Rochestie, Daven Harmeling, and Aron Baynes graduating at the end of that year, Bennett decided to jump ship as well to Virginia. The move puzzled Cougar fans as Bennett had been a candidate for many high-profile jobs in past offseasons, and yet he chose Charlottesville over those destinations. Bennett’s replacement came in the form of Ken Bone, who had built Portland State into a Big Sky power. He would be charged with getting the Cougars back to NCAA Tournaments, a tough task as Bennett left a depleted roster in his wake.
SPONSORED:Want to see some NCAA Tournament action in person? AT&T is hosting a sweepstakes right now to go to the Final Four AND the National Championship game in New Orleans! To enter go to AT&T’s Sweepstakes Page for details to sign up.
Normally when Yahoo! releases an exclusive report we pay attention because we are sure there some salacious details particularly when Charles Robinson is involved. Yesterday’s report by Robinson and Pat Forde falls far short of that. In their investigation, Robinson and Forde found that Syracuse may have failed to adhere to its internal drug testing policy. According to the report, at least ten players since 2001 have failed drug tests and been allowed to play when they should have been suspended if internal policies had been followed. The only reason this story is even somewhat noteworthy is that the authors assert that the NCAA could sanction the school for playing ineligible players although the extent of those penalties and even which teams would be involved is unknown at this time. For their part, the school released a generic statement saying that they are working with the NCAA on this matter.
Memphis is starting to look like a dangerous team, having only lost three games since Christmas by a combined six points, and some additional help may be on the way in the form of freshman Adonis Thomas, who has been cleared to play this Thursday. Thomas, out since January with an ankle injury, should provide additional help for the Tigers and should not alter their offense too much, as he is not a high-volume shooter, but it will be worth watching to see what kind of shape he is in and how the dynamic of the team changes with his return.
The wheels on the coaching carousel have started and yesterday two schools announced that they were firing their current head coaches. With their season just completed on Saturday, Brown announced that it was firing Jesse Agel after the team went 8-23 overall and 2-12 in the Ivy League to finish second to last. Agel, who went 39-79 in four seasons, had a 33.2% winning percentage, which was the third worst in the program’s history. Perhaps the most interesting part of the announcement is that former Syracuse killer T.J. Sorrentine was announced as the interim head coach, although with the school’s athletic director leaving at the end of June that appointment could be very short-lived.
Randy Peele has had significantly more success at Winthrop, but even two Big South Conference titles (2008 and 2010) were not enough to overcome back-to-back losing seasons including a 20-loss season this year, which was the school’s first since the 1997-98 season. So the school announced yesterday that it was firing Peele, who finished 77-82 in five seasons. Unfortunately for Peele, his time at Winthrop was feast or famine, what with the two NCAA Tournament appearances and three losing seasons in his five years there with nothing in between. The school, which owes Peele $165,000 for the last year of his contract, will begin looking for a successor.
With the regular season over, John Gasaway decided to run his Tuesday Truths column a day early. In this week’s edition, Gasaway takes a look back at the regular season conference numbers and provides brief previews of the conference tournaments. Most of the numbers are about what you would expect based on the standings, but some statistics (like those for a certain Big 12 team that is horrendous at making in-game defensive adjustments) might surprise a few people.
A lot of the effort in basketball analytics goes towards the good things that players do that do not appear in the box score. This is the driving idea behind Michael Lewis’s seminal New York Times feature, “The No-Stats All-Star,” an early look at analytics in the NBA primarily focused on Darryl Morey, Shane Battier, the Houston Rockets, and adjusted plus/minus. This makes sense: finding hidden strengths is the coach’s angle while finding hidden value is the economist’s angle. As a result of the fine work of smart guys with formulas and others with a willingness to watch a lot of games closely, Charles Jenkins and Nate Wolters were household names last season. This, of course, assumes that your household is filled with basketball dorks, but you get the idea.
Faried Was An Underappreciated Star
Finding diamonds in the rough is a noble pursuit and talking up the greatness of underexposed and underrated players is a worthwhile task (Hey there, Kenneth Faried!). Sometimes, however, there is a joy in using analytics and “advanced” statistics to look for the guy who is hurting his team the most. Let’s ignore the diamonds and go straight for the rough.
How does a player hurt his team? Well, when push comes to shove, there are basically only two ways: offensively and defensively. Sadly, however, contemporary box scores assign no grade for bad defense to the individual outside of counting how many fouls (which could very well be offensive) a player commits. Our primary understanding of player’s individual defense comes only in positive contributions like blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds while the effect on an opponents shooting percentage is measured at a team level. The noble effort of Luke Winn, David Hess, and others that has sought to enact Dean Oliver’s defensive charting schemes is a good start at really quantifying individual defense, but a very small percentage of Division I games have been looked at in this way making the approach of limited use to someone who wants to look at the whole of college basketball. So, acknowledging that analytic approaches to finding bad defensive players are limited, let’s at least take a quick look at fouls.
Mark Bryant oversees multimedia at the Big South Conference. You can follow his updates on Twitter @BigSouthSports.
The Week That Was
Major Conference Assault… Big South teams threw down a few notable upsets since our last report: Presbyterian over Cincinnati 56-54 (Big East), Coastal Carolina over Clemson 60-59 (ACC), Campbell over Iowa 77-61 (Big Ten), and UNC Asheville over Utah 87-65 (Pac-12). Add that to Coastal Carolina’s victory over LSU (SEC), as noted in the last update, and the Big South has wins over teams from five of the six BCS conferences (regrettably no games against Big 12 teams remain, 0-2 in the only chances).
Temporarily Perfect… For the first time in conference history, two teams opened the season with five straight wins. Coastal Carolina and Campbell each reached 5-0 before dropping game number six (Campbell to Creighton and Coastal to FIU).
League Play Begins… Again this season, Big South Conference play gets a December preview before beginning in earnest on New Year’s Eve. Most teams will get two chances to notch an early conference win, with games on Thursday 12/1 and Saturday 12/3. High Point and Asheville are the only two teams who will have just one game against a Big South foe this weekend.
1. UNC Asheville – (3-4/0-0) The record gives an illusion of a lackluster start, but two of those losses were to top five programs (UNC & UConn) and another was to ACC foe NC State. The one the Bulldogs would probably like back is the two-point loss to College of Charleston. Of course, this team also obliterated Utah by a healthy 22-point margin. Asheville is fine, and the tough early tests should only serve to get the squad ready for the games ahead.
2. Coastal Carolina – (5-1/0-0) While we figured any reports of CCU’s death were greatly exaggerated, getting early wins against both LSU and Clemson certainly opened some eyes. The other contests on the Chanticleers’ schedule don’t offer much to go on so far, but even without some of the big-name players of past years, the two-time defending regular season champs are not going away anytime soon.
3. Campbell (5-1/0-0) – Rocketing up the charts, I present the Fighting Camels of Campbell. Okay, I was fooled before in thinking this team would be a middle-of-the-pack bunch this year because they are bringing it! Led by highlight-worthy senior Eric Griffin and rapidly-ascending freshman Trey Freeman, Campbell may well have something to say about the Big South race this season.
4. VMI (3-2/0-0) – The Keydets have knocked off equal and lesser competition so far, with losses to larger out-of-conference foes Air Force and Ohio State, those games also being the only ones with VMI held under 80 points. Led by Keith Gabriel and ESPN Top 10 dunker Stan Okoye, VMI is still running and gunning. We will soon see if they can outpace conference foes this year.
5. Presbyterian College (3-3/0-0) – The Blue Hose got deserved recognition and attention for grabbing a win at top 20 Cincinnati in a demonstration of what can happen when they are clicking. A team that has seen the bottom of the standings in recent years should be no worse than the middle of the pack this season, and could frustrate several league foes along the way.
6. High Point (2-4/0-0) – They may not have the most attractive record to date, but the Panthers have been in every game they’ve played right down to the end. Three of the four losses have been by only four or five points (the other was a 12-point margin). So while High Point has more losses than wins to show for November, the team has also demonstrated a little more fight than they have gotten credit for in the last couple of years and that could be important against familiar opposition in conference.
7. Charleston Southern (3-2/0-0) Saying your most impressive win of the year is against Stetson may not be shaking the pillars of college hoops, but the Bucs do bring a three-game win streak into league play after an 0-2 start, and that’s a very good sign for CSU. Bump them up for now, but see what comes out of the first week of December for a better barometer.
8. Liberty (2-5/0-0) – Ummm…dropping far down, at least for this week, is Liberty. The Flames have lost four straight, and not exactly against a murderer’s row. LU still has a fair chance to be in the mix this season, but the early skid does not offer much to go on. That said, the Flames have come back strong after slow starts before.
9. Radford (3-4/0-0) – What gives? Radford has lost three in a row since the last report and moved up two positions? Believe me, it says more about the other teams than it does Radford. We still think the Highlanders will have a rocky road to travel this season, and will likely finish at or near the bottom, but for now, slot them here.
10. Gardner-Webb (3-5/0-0) – Well, the record isn’t pretty, but some of that is deceptive. Yes, GWU is 3-5, and yes, that includes a four-game losing streak, but Bulldogs had to deal with five games in nine days at the Hoosier Invitational–and still had enough in the tank to pull out an overtime victory on that ninth day (76-74 over Chattanooga). So it’s bad, but it’s not ALL bad.
11. Winthrop (1-5/0-0) – Honestly, this is a “how the mighty have fallen” moment. Winthrop was the class of the Big South for years, and has found a way to matter in the postseason even when not playing from the top, but things have taken a turn this year. Winthrop needs a remedy–and fast. Their lone win came at the expense of Central Penn, a 107-68 thrashing. Outside of that game and a four-point loss to Drake, Winthrop has not seriously challenged its opponents, losing by 12, 21, 22, and 23. To be fair, two of those losses were Virginia and Marquette, and the Eagles were close for much of the Virgina game before being blown away down the stretch, but there aren’t many genuine positives to latch onto yet this season.
There are other games, sure, but the headliners right now are the conference pairings. Here are some key ones to look for…
Liberty — at Campbell 12/1 & at Coastal 12/3… a very tough 1-2 punch to take for Liberty, facing two early power teams on the road, but a sincere measuring stick for where the Flames really stand.
VMI — at Coastal 12/1 & at Charleston Southern 12/3… if you’re looking for entertaining basketball, you should find it on VMI’s road trip, with plenty of running, and threes, and dunks…defense may be optional in these games.
Winthrop — at Presbyterian 12/1 & at Gardner-Webb 12/3… talk about measuring sticks–is it the old guard or the up-and-comers who will prevail? Has Winthrop really fallen that far or was that an illusion?
Caught on Film
I’m not sure it gets much better than this–I can honestly say that it just doesn’t matter how many times I watch this dunk by Campbell’s Eric Griffin: the take-off from the Big South logo just shy of the free throw line, the posterizing of the unfortunate NC A&T player, the sheer vertical involved, you name it…I am spellbound each and every time.
Mark Bryant oversees multimedia at the Big South Conference. You can follow his updates on Twitter @BigSouthSports.
The Week That Was
New Gym, Part One: YES… UNC Asheville got its opportunity to show off the new Kimmel Arena with a marquee match-up against the top-ranked North CarolinaTar Heels on ESPNU. EddieBiedenbach’s Bulldogs played with a tenacity befitting their nickname, hanging tight most of the way before falling, 91-75.
New Gym, Part Two: NO, but that’s OK… Coastal Carolina had once hoped that this past Tuesday would be the chance for the Chants to unveil their own shiny new room, but delays in construction may mean that’s a year away. No matter: CCU welcomed LSU from the SEC to small Kimbel Arena in Conway — then proceeded to pull off the 71-63 upset.
Meet The New Member, Same as the Old Member: Campbell is back in the Big South. The Fighting Camels were a founding member of the conference and played hoops with the Big South from 1983-94. CU was 129-128 in those seasons–and stays on the plus side with wins in the first three games this year.
UNC Asheville Opened Up Its New Digs, But With A Loss To North Carolina
ACC Game On will periodically review recent games involving ACC teams and take a look forward at key upcoming matchups.
Despite Boston College going out of it’s way to pull a Molly Hatchet (“Flirtin’ With Disaster“), none of the four ACC teams suffered an upset on Monday night. Blow outs were the rule of the day for Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech who pulled away from their mid-major competitors without much difficulty. In Chestnut Hill, Steve Donahue managed to start four freshmen and a transfer student, an odd choice (though logical considering his roster), but one that he might have been regretting as the game against New Hampshire rolled on. An uncomfortably close game, the Eagles eked out a close three-point win. While no single player looked particularly impressive for BC, the team was marked by that distinctive Donahue-style: BC shot only 37.5% overall, but managed to shoot 44.4% from beyond the arc. Yep, that’s the new look Boston College.
BC Defeated UNH In Its Typical Manner (Boston Globe/M. Lee)
The three blowouts around the ACC were not particularly interesting aside from a few individual performances. In Tallahassee, Florida State easily handled a Central Florida team that, despite reinstating three key contributors who had been held out out of their opener, suffocated under the Seminoles’ oppressive defense. Bernard James, who struggled in the season opener with an ankle injury, got the early breakout we expected, scoring eighteen points on 8-9 shooting, while also lodging eleven rebounds and three blocks. In Blacksburg, Dorian Finney-Smith failed to replicate his stat-sheet-stuffing heroics of the season opener, attempting only two shots and missing them both (though he still managed to grab seven rebounds). The lead scorer for the Hokies was freshman Robert Brown, who quietly lodged his second double figure scoring game coming off the bench. With Georgia Tech, Daniel Miller, a 6’11” center, somehow managed to lead the Yellow Jackets in assists, dishing out six dimes while scoring fourteen points and grabbing fifteen rebounds. All of these marks were career highs for the sophomore whose freshman campaign was largely undistinguished. If Miller breaks out for Georgia Tech, it could make a big difference for a team that is trying to climb out of the conference cellar.
Wake Forest had a rough season this past year. No, wait, that’s not right. Bad? Terrible? Catastrophic? I’m having a hard time capturing the scale and scope of how bad last season was. The ideal word would capture a sort of hopeless, inevitable despondency mixed with mind-blowing, frustrating futility. Imagine a turtle trying to climb up a hill. Then the camera zooms out, and the turtle is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon trying to scale the side of a cliff. Now imagine that the turtle accidentally falls onto it’s back. Now imagine a mob gathering at the top of the cliff to push boulders down onto the turtle. That’s how last season felt in Winston-Salem.
Jeff Bzdelik Has A Lot Of Work To Do After Last Season's Disaster
Wake Forest had a single win in the Atlantic Coast Conference against lowly Virginia. Wake Forest won a single game away from its home court: a neutral court win against Elon at Greensboro Coliseum. Wake Forest stunned the world by losing the season opener against Stetson and then proceeded to lose to Winthrop, UNC Wilmington, and Presbyterian. They also lost to a number of very good basketball teams, but that kind of goes without saying when Stetson and Presbyterian are giving you the business on your floor. Ken Pomeroy’s basketball efficiency statistics demonstrate that this wasn’t just a few unlucky games. This was a systemic and utter, season-long failure. Every 16-seed in last year’s NCAA tournament was significantly better than Wake Forest. For the record, that group included UNC-Asheville, Boston University, Arkansas-Little Rock, and Texas-San Antonio. Last season, in short, was an unmitigated disaster. I hope we’re clear on that. That said, this summer may have been worse.