Northern Iowa vs. Wichita State Headlines Set of Decisive O26 Weekend Games

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 28th, 2015

We’re just days away from the postseason, yet several leagues with imminent conference tournaments remain up for grabs heading into this weekend. Let’s take a look at the most crucial match-ups on tap – games that will decide top seeds — highlighted by the de facto Missouri Valley championship game on Saturday.

Atlantic Sun

  • Stetson (9-20, 3-10) at North Florida (19-11, 11-2) – 7:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Saturday. North Florida completed a sweep of Florida Gulf Coast on Wednesday and can clinch the No. 1 seed – and home court advantage in the A-Sun Tournament – by beating Stetson on Saturday. KenPom gives the Ospreys a 96 percent chance of doing just that.
  • Florida Gulf Coast (21-8, 11-2) at Jacksonville (9-21, 3-10) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPN3, Saturday. After losing at home earlier this week, Dunk City needs some help. The Eagles should handle lowly Jacksonville on Saturday, but then it’s a matter of hoping Stetson pulls off the stunner later that night.

Big South

High Point and Charleston Southern will square off for the Big South's top seed. (Laura Greene / hpenews.com)

High Point and Charleston Southern will square off for the Big South’s top seed. (Laura Greene / hpenews.com)

  • High Point (22-7, 13-4) at Charleston Southern (18-10, 12-5) – 4:30 PM ET, Saturday. After all the craziness and parity (earlier this month, seven teams in this league were tied for first place), the Big South championship and top seed come down to this one game. High Point breezed past the Buccaneers in January and will earn its second straight outright conference title (third overall) if it beats them again, but Charleston Southern – led by 5’8’’ point guard Saah Nimley (20.8 PPG) – is 12-2 at home this season and owns the tiebreaker should it win. Plus, who knows – this game could also decide whether Nimley or High Point’s John Brown (18.2 PPG) garners Player of the Year honors.

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CAA Breakdown: Four Teams Still Vying for Top Spot in Final Week

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 25th, 2015

The Colonial Athletic Association could just as easily be called the Chaotic Athletic Association this season, considering its level of parity and unpredictability. Currently, four of the league’s 10 teams – William & Mary, Northeastern, UNC Wilmington and James Madison – are tied atop the standings with just two games left on the schedule. And since only two of those squads play each other this week, the CAA’s top seed will likely be decided by tie-breakers. Let’s examine the four teams in contention, several possible scenarios from this week’s action, and why William & Mary is in the best position heading into next week’s conference tournament.

The Top Four

William & Mary has its sights set on the CAA's top seed. (TribeAthletics.com)

William & Mary has its sights set on the CAA’s top seed. (TribeAthletics.com)

  • William & Mary – 17-10 (11-5). The Tribe boasts the league most efficient offense and one of its most lethal offensive players in senior guard Marcus Thornton (19.3 PPG). He, along with do-everything forward Terry Tarpey (11.5 PPG, 8.2 RPG) and a cast of dangerous shooters, should handle both Towson and Drexel at home this week, which – as explained below – will be enough to earn the top seed in Baltimore.
  • Northeastern – 19-10 (11-5). The preseason conference favorite downed William & Mary at home last Wednesday before squeaking by Drexel over the weekend. It lacks depth – ranking 344th nationally in bench minutes – but is balanced offensively and possesses the CAA’s premier big man in Scott Eatherton (14.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG), a 6’8’’ center who has fouled out just once this season. The Huskies get the league’s two bottom units this week – Elon and College of Charleston – but both games are on the road and both opponents have proven peskier than their records show.
  • UNC Wilmington – 16-11 (11-5). First-year coach Kevin Keatts has done a remarkable job in Wilmington, taking the Seahawks from last place a year ago (3-13) to first place this season. All that stands between them and a share of the title is a home game against James Madison tonight and a trip to Elon on Saturday.
  • James Madison – 18-11 (11-5). Since dismissing embattled guard Andre Nation in mid-January, James Madison has gone 9-3 and put itself in contention for a share of the conference crown. Unfortunately, of the four contenders, the Dukes have the most difficult route: an elimination game at UNC Wilmington tonight and a tough home game against Hofstra (18-11 (9-7)) on Saturday.

Tie-Breaking Procedure – William & Mary in Control

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O26 Weekly Awards: Miami (OH), Kyle Wiltjer, Howie Dickenman & Binghamton…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 24th, 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

The RedHawks wreaked havoc in the MAC East last week. (GoZips.com)

The RedHawks wreaked havoc in the MAC East last week. (GoZips.com)

Miami (OH). Miami (OH) took a wrecking ball to the MAC East last week, and it’s doubtful anyone saw it coming. At just 4-8 in conference play and 9-16 overall, the RedHawks – 1-7 on the road entering Wednesday’s game – traveled to first-place Bowling Green and beat the Falcons, 67-56, then turned around and knocked off Akron just three nights later. Against the former, John Cooper’s bunch hit 20 of 21 free throws and managed over a point per possession against one of the stingier defenses in America, prompting Falcons’ head coach Chris Jans to say afterward, “We’ve talked and talked about getting everybody’s best shot. And [today] you saw what happened.” But the effort was more than a one-shot, “best-shot” deal for Miami, because the RedHawks kept the upset momentum rolling into Saturday. Again facing long odds and a strong divisional contender, Miami overcome poor shooting (37% FG), forced 20 turnovers and gutted out an overtime win against the preseason MAC East-favorite Zips. Junior guard Eric Washington led the way with 21 points, including four big free throws in the extra period. Miami’s out-of-nowhere run has suddenly put Akron in jeopardy of having to play in first and second round games in the conference tournament (rather than byes), helped knock Bowling Green out of first place, and enabled Kent State to rise atop the standings. But Golden Flashes beware: The red-hot RedHawks come calling tonight at 7:00 PM ET.

Honorable Mentions: Columbia (2-0: at Brown, at Yale); Northern Arizona (2-0: vs. Idaho, vs. Eastern Washington); UC Davis (2-0: at Long Beach State, vs. Hawaii); Stony Brook (2-0: at Albany, vs. Binghamton); Chattanooga (2-0: vs. Mercer, vs. East Tennessee State); Buffalo (2-0: at Eastern Michigan, at Bowling Green)

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Horizon League Breakdown: Valpo on Top With Work to be Done

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 20th, 2015

Valparaiso’s victory over Green Bay last Friday was big, no matter how you slice it. The Crusaders held home court, avoided being swept by the Phoenix, and maintained their full game lead on both Green Bay and Cleveland State with less than two weeks remaining in the season. Still – with the top overall seed and both double-byes in next month’s league tournament yet to be determined – the result was far from a coronation. Let’s examine the key matchups, possible tournament scenarios and general outlook heading down the stretch.

The Top Four

Alec Peters and Valparaiso are in the Horizon League driver's seat. (Valparaiso Athletics)

Alec Peters and Valparaiso are in the Horizon League driver’s seat. (Valparaiso Athletics)

  • Valparaiso – 24-2 (11-2). It’s quite simple for Valparaiso: win out and the championship is yours. Of course, with a pair of difficult road games left – including Cleveland State to end the season – that might be easier said than done (the Crusaders barely snuck by the Vikings back in January), but Bryce Drew’s group has been remarkably consistent in 2014-15 and sophomore forward Alec Peters (17 PPG, 6.6 RPG) might be the league’s most dynamic player, aside from Keifer Sykes.
  • Cleveland State – 16-11 (10-3). After starting the year 6-8, Cleveland State got its act together in conference play and now has a legitimate chance to claim a share of the title. It won’t be easy – a road trip to Green Bay and Milwaukee beckons, before closing the season against Valparaiso – but if the Vikings can knock off the Phoenix tonight, they will own a sweep over the reigning champs and be in excellent position to emerge with a top-two seed in March.
  • Green Bay – 21-6 (10-3). Green Bay can avenge two of its three league losses by beating Cleveland State at home tonight and taking down Oakland on February 28th.  KenPom gives the Phoenix about a 53 percent chance of winning their final three, but if Wednesday night’s drubbing of Detroit is any indication, those odds might actually be better: Greg Mays dropped 34 points, Keifer Sykes (nursing a thumb injury) flirted with a triple-double and the preseason favorites won by 20.
  • Oakland – 14-14 (9-4). The Grizzlies will be hard-pressed to finish first or second, but they did lock up a top-four seed by beating Wright State on Wednesday. That guarantees a bye in the Horizon League tournament, which is pretty good for a team picked seventh in the preseason.

What’s At Stake

Seeding matters immensely in the Horizon League, considering the top four seeds receive byes to the quarterfinals, the top two head straight to the semifinals, and the top overall seed hosts both the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds. Likewise, the highest remaining seed hosts the conference championship game. As it stands, those top four slots are locked up – Valparaiso, Cleveland State, Green Bay, and Oakland – but the double-byes and tournament host have yet to be determined.

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C-USA Breakdown: Louisiana Tech & UTEP Atop Decidedly One-Bid League

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 18th, 2015

As recently as last Thursday, Conference USA still had a legitimate shot at becoming a two-bid league. Old Dominion – in second place behind Louisiana Tech – was considered among Joe Lunardi’s “Last Four In” selections, a team capable of sneaking into the Big Dance even if failed to win the league tournament. But life outside power conferences can be cruel, and the Monarchs all but squandered those at-large chances over the weekend, suffering back-to-back road losses at UT-San Antonio (Thursday) and UTEP (Saturday) while falling to fifth place overall. In fact, with several other would-be contenders also stumbling badly in recent weeks, the once-crowded conference field is looking more and more like a two-horse race between Louisiana Tech and UTEP. Let’s examine the top of the standings, the potential importance of the date of February 26, and why UAB has an ace in the hole come March.

The Top Five

'Speedy' Smith and the Bulldogs sit atop Conference USA. (Tom Morris/latechsportspix.com)

‘Speedy’ Smith and the Bulldogs sit atop Conference USA. (Tom Morris/latechsportspix.com)

  1. Louisiana Tech – 20-6 (11-2). The preseason conference favorites are right where we thought they would be back in November – all alone atop the standings. Louisiana Tech boasts the second-most efficient offense and defense in C-USA and its #67 overall KenPom ranking tops in the league. And while the Bulldogs’ excellent guard trio garners much of the credit – led by Kenneth ‘Speedy’ Smith, the nation’s top assist man (7.9 APG) – forward Erik McCree (12.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG) has also been superb in his first year since transferring over from Murray State. If Michael White’s up-tempo bunch can win at Old Dominion next Saturday, it may be one victory over UTEP away from an outright league title.
  2. UTEP – 18-7 (10-3). The Miners are equipped with the league’s best player, 6’8’’ forward Vince Hunter (15.8 PPG, 9.6 RPG), and a massive frontcourt that ranks seventh nationally in effective height. Their schedule is also favorable, with three of the team’s final five contests coming at home, and only one game – the showdown at Louisiana Tech – against an upper-tier opponent. Read the rest of this entry »
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O26 Weekly Awards: Iona, Chris Wood, Bob Williams & Texas A&M-CC

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 17th, 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

A.J. English and the MAAC-leading Gaels showed grit last week. (Andrew Theodorakis / New York Post)

A.J. English and the MAAC-leading Gaels showed grit last week. (Andrew Theodorakis / New York Post)

Iona. The Gaels battled a pair of tough MAAC contenders on the road this past weekend and beat them both, despite playing some (at times) less-than-pretty basketball. On Friday, against cross-town foe Manhattan – a rivalry game Steve Masiello once compared to Kentucky vs. Louisville – Iona overcame 21 turnovers, withstood several second-half runs and edged the Jaspers by three for its first victory in Draddy Gymnasium since 2012. “I heard a lot about this game, and there is nothing like a Manhattan crowd,” freshman guard Schadrac Casimir, who hit several big shots in the second half, said afterward. He finished with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting, but it was junior A.J. English who drilled a clutch triple with 32 seconds left to seal the deal. Less than 48 hours later, the Gaels showed arguably more grit at Quinnipiac in not just erasing a seven-point second half deficit but overcoming their worst shooting performance (31.5%) since Tim Cluess took over the program in 2011. A team usually known for its fast-paced and free-flowing offense – the 28th-most efficient in America – put together its best defensive showing of the season to beat the Bobcats by three despite scoring just 0.86 points per possession. “We know that our shots aren’t going to fall every game and we have to find other ways to win,” Iona forward David Laury (18 points, nine rebounds) said. The Gaels have now won eight straight contests and sit two full games up on second-place Rider in the MAAC standings, their gritty weekend inching them one step closer to a second straight conference crown.

Honorable Mentions: San Diego State (2-0: vs. Wyoming, vs. Colorado State); Chattanooga (2-0: at Wofford, vs. Samford); UC Santa Barbara (2-0: vs. Long Beach State, at Cal State Northridge); Central Michigan (2-0: at Ohio, at Buffalo); Rice (2-0: vs. Middle Tennessee State, vs. UAB); Valparaiso (2-0: vs. Green Bay…at UW-Milwaukee)

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Big West Breakdown: Injuries Could Dictate Tight Race

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 12th, 2015

Here is a fun fact: four of the six players named to the Preseason Big West All-Conference Team are either currently injured or no longer playing college basketball. UC Santa Barbara’s Alan Williams has missed extended time with a shoulder ailment; UC Irvine has been without Mamadou Ndiaye for the majority of its games because of a foot injury; Corey Hawkins sat out UC Davis’ last two contests due to a leg issue; and Isaac Fotu – ruled ineligible in October – opted to leave Hawaii and turn pro before the season started. And as if that hasn’t made the already-up-for-grabs league hard enough to handicap, additional key injuries and unexpected surprises in the standings – namely UC Davis (currently in first place) and Cal State Northridge (one game out of last) – certainly have. With roughly half the slate remaining and some of the injured due back soon, let’s examine the top contenders, the possible returnees, and who might be best positioned come March.

The Top Four

UC Santa Barbara's Alan Williams has been out with a shoulder injury. (AP)

UC Santa Barbara’s Alan Williams has been out with a shoulder injury. (AP)

  1. UC Davis – 18-4 (8-1). The Aggies, picked seventh in October, have vastly exceeded expectations and sit alone atop the conference, thanks largely to their offense – the 25th-most efficient in college basketball. But the schedule significantly ramps up over the next month (UC Davis has faced the easiest slate to this point) and Hawkins – likely Big West Player of the Year – is battling a leg ailment.
  2. Long Beach State – 13-2 (7-2). Things were looking peachy for Long Beach State until it fell at home to UC Irvine on Saturday, a banged-up team which had just lost to UC Davis by 19 points. Road trips to Cal Poly, UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis still loom, but 49ers boast an all-conference guard – senior Mike Caffey (17.4 PPG) – and, most importantly, remain healthy.
  3. UC Irvine – 14-9 (7-2). Beset by injuries nearly all season, preseason favorite UC Irvine still finds itself only one game out of first place. Saturday night’s road win at Long Beach State was huge, especially considering the Anteaters had been blown out at home two nights before and were without point guard Alex Young. They will need him back (not to mention 7’6’’ Ndiaye – discussed below) going forward; like UC Davis, Russell Turner’s club faces a difficult schedule down the stretch.
  4. UC Santa Barbara – 11-11 (4-4). The Gauchos probably can’t win the conference at this point, but they can make things interesting – both in the regular season and conference tournament. Four of their five most difficult remaining tests are at home, but any serious run ultimately comes down to the health of Alan Williams.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Harvard, Jalen Cannon, Jim Les & Rice

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 10th, 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

Harvard. One could argue that Harvard’s season was at stake against Yale on Saturday, or at least close to it. The Crimson, 4-1 in Ivy League play, faced the prospect of falling two games back of the undefeated Bulldogs and severely damaging their hopes for a fourth-straight outright conference title. A victory for Tommy Amaker’s group would even up the records with a return game in Cambridge still ahead on March 6; a loss, and Harvard’s NCAA Tournament destiny would no longer rest in its own hands even if it did beat Yale next month. This was about as “must-win” as it gets in early February.

Harvard regained control of the Ivy League on Saturday. (Robert F. Worley / The Harvard Crimson)

Harvard regained control of the Ivy League on Saturday. (Robert F. Worley / The Harvard Crimson)

Yet the pivotal showdown would have been even direr for Harvard had it not been for some late-game heroics the night before. Trailing Brown by two with only a few seconds left, it took reigning Player of the Year Wesley Saunders corralling his own miss and banking in a shot at the buzzer just to send Friday’s game into overtime. In the extra period, the Crimson controlled things – ultimately winning by two – and Saunders finished with a career-high 33 points. “We’ve had these kind of games against Brown,” Amaker said afterwards, referring to his team’s third overtime victory in as many seasons against the always-pesky Bears.

Call it ‘survival,’ call it what you want, but a win is a win – and Harvard made the most of its second life the following night in New Haven. After an ugly 20 minutes of basketball (Harvard took a 16-11 lead into the locker room), the Crimson held on to their advantage throughout the second half, beating the Bulldogs 52-50 in their own house. Saunders again led the way, scoring 16 points and hitting two clutch free throws in the closing seconds, and in a matter of 24 hours Amaker’s team went from the brink of disaster to re-establishing control of the Ivy League. “We’ve taken these kinds of shots from the other teams the last few years; we’ve been up to the challenge,” he remarked afterward. With Harvard returning home for six of its final eight contests – including the Yale game in a few weeks – the Crimson’s ability to take those shots and respond when it mattered most has put them in good position to retain the conference crown and return to the Big Dance.

Honorable Mentions: St. Bonaventure (2-0: at Davidson, vs. VCU); Boise State (2-0: at Utah State, vs. San Diego State); Ohio (2-0: vs. Akron, vs. Eastern Michigan); Vermont (2-0: vs. Maine, at Stony Brook); IPFW (2-0: vs. South Dakota State, vs. Oral Roberts)

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Murray State Quietly Racing Toward a Special Season

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 6th, 2015

After his team’s most recent defeat – a 93-58 beatdown at the hands of Valparaiso – Murray State head coach Steve Prohm did not mince words: “We need to figure out what we need to do to get better. We are struggling – we’re playing terrible. Everybody knows that.” The 35-point drubbing was the Racers’ third-straight loss, an ugly punctuation to an unexpectedly poor start. “This is definitely not the same basketball team that finished the year,” Prohm said. Those statements were made on November 29 – well over two months ago – and it’s safe to say that his team has figured out how to get better. A lot better, in fact. Since losing to the Crusaders just after Thanksgiving, Murray State has reeled off 18 straight victories and put itself in position to become the first team in 11 years to go unbeaten in OVC play. With the conference’s most exceptional player pacing an highly efficient offense, the Racers seem poised to cement themselves in league history. If they can follow that success up with even more in March? Then it might be time to start mentioning Murray State in the same breath as some of the elite mid-major programs in college basketball.

Cam Payne and the Racers have their sites set on something special. (ovcball.net)

Cam Payne and the Racers have their sights set on something special. (ovcball.net)

Murray State’s accomplishments to this point have mostly hinged on its ability to score with ease, a strong suit that begins with point guard Cameron Payne – the clear-cut front-runner for OVC Player of the Year. His dynamic scoring prowess (19 PPG) – quick off the dribble, adept at drawing fouls, proficient from deep – combined with equally-great passing skills (5.9 APG) makes the sophomore an unmatched force in the league. Last season, Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neaubauer called Payne “Murray State’s next Isaiah Canaan.” But the sophomore is not alone. Joining Payne in the backcourt are three excellent shooters – T.J. Sapp, Jeffery Moss and Justin Seymour – each of whom shoots better than 40 percent from deep and scores between 8.5 and 11.0 points per night. Down low, the Racers are equipped with arguably the conference’s best big man, 6’8’’ Jarvis Williams (16.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG), whose ability to run the floor – not to mention his great rapport with Payne – make him the perfect five man for Prohm’s uptempo attack (16.6 seconds per offensive possession; fastest in the OVC). Throw in power forward Jonathan Fairell, the fourth-best offensive rebounder in college hoops, and the sum of the parts of Murray State is an offense that might surpass last season’s Belmont group as the most efficient in recent modern OVC history. As it stands, the Racers rank 28th nationally in offensive efficiency (112.4 AdjO), just behind last year’s Bruins (112.9), and with a soft schedule upcoming, Prohm’s group has a great chance to further improve on that number.

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O26 Weekly Awards: Northern Iowa, Damion Lee, Jon Coffman & Richmond…

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 3rd, 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

Northern Iowa knocked around Wichita State on Saturday. (Bryon Houlgrave, The Register)

Northern Iowa knocked around Wichita State on Saturday. (Bryon Houlgrave, The Register)

Northern Iowa. The Panthers beat Southern Illinois last Wednesday, 59-52, which was a nice MVC road victory; but let’s be honest – this league is all about the Shockers. While plenty of folks figured Northern Iowa could defeat Wichita State (they were in fact slight favorites by KenPom), I’m not sure anyone thought Ben Jacobson’s group would manhandle the reigning Missouri Valley champs. After trading baskets for the opening 10 minutes, the Panthers spent the final 30 minutes of game time pummeling a team that hadn’t been pummeled in a long, long time. In fact, Wichita State had not lost an MVC contest since the 2013 league championship game against Creighton, racking up 27 straight regular season conference victories entering Saturday. So it goes without saying that Northern Iowa’s performance – a 70-54 beatdown – was something special. Trailing by two with 9:50 left in the first half, the Panthers used stifling defense and an energetic home crowd to close out the period on a 21-6 run, confronting the Shockers with their largest deficit since January 11, 2014. And even though Wichita State had won 12 games in a row when trailing at the break, they were simply overmatched this time around; Northern Iowa began the second-half on another 8-2 spurt to open up an insurmountable 19-point lead. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker were unable to find consistent looks against the home team’s stingy pack-line defense – now the 17th most efficient in college basketball – and Northern Iowa senior Seth Tuttle had the game of his career, scoring 29 points against the Shockers’ usually-tough interior. How did the Panthers dominate Wichita State so thoroughly? Perhaps it was a matter of expectations. “We didn’t really talk about coming in and beating them by one or two,” Tuttle said afterwards. “We talked about coming in here and beating them by 15.” Northern Iowa is now projected as a #5 seed in multiple mock brackets and has a real shot to win the league. February 28 – the return match-up in Wichita – looms large. But for now, the Panthers are our Team of the Week.

Honorable Mentions: Richmond (2-0: vs. Duquesne, at VCU); William & Mary (2-0: vs. Hofstra, at James Madison); Pepperdine (2-0: at Pacific, at Saint Mary’s); Albany (2-0: at Vermont, at Maine); Radford (2-0: at Charleston Southern, vs. Radford); USC-Upstate (2-0: at Jacksonville, at North Florida)

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Wichita State vs. Northern Iowa: Does the Shockers’ Streak End Today?

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 31st, 2015

Looking for something to tide you over before Duke-Virginia? Look no further than the Missouri Valley, where Northern Iowa hosts Wichita State in arguably the biggest O26 clash to date. Not only will it be the first matchup between ranked MVC teams since 1982, but the outcome could go a long way in determining the eventual league champion. Perhaps more importantly, each team will have an opportunity to notch a rare, in-conference resume booster just six weeks ahead of Selection Sunday. Oh, and did I mention that the Shockers’ 27-game conference winning streak hangs in the balance? With lots at stake and both teams projected as single-digit seeds in the NCAA Tournament, this isn’t your average high-major undercard – it’s a heavyweight bout all on its own. Let’s take a look at why each team can win.

Why Northern Iowa Wins…

Seth Tuttle and the Panthers have what it takes to beat Wichita State. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) )

Do Seth Tuttle and the Panthers have what it takes to beat Wichita State? (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

  • Home court advantage. The Panthers haven’t lost at home in almost a full calendar year, today in search of their 13th-straight victory in the McLeod Center. And while their last defeat in Cedar Falls did come at the hands of the Shockers – a nine point loss last February 8th – this will be the first time since the 2013 MVC title game that Wichita State actually enters a league contest as underdog; KenPom gives Northern Iowa the slight advantage (54%) this afternoon. Gregg Marshall’s bunch has exhibited steely nerves on the road plenty of times before, but keeping it together in front of a crowd that’s been sold out for a month and a half is easier said than done.
  • Defense. This may be oversimplifying things, but if Northern Iowa plays the level of defense it has for much of this season, it will be in great shape to win. The Panthers – currently boasting the 17th most efficient defense in college basketball – have allowed just five teams to score over one point per possession, playing a stifling brand of pack-line defense (with some other principles mixed in) that’s been incredibly difficult to penetrate in 2014-15. With Cleanthony Early no longer in the lineup, Wichita State might not have an athletic wing-type capable of attacking the lane and opening looks near the basket the way it did in 2013-14, especially if the Panthers stymy them in transition. Likewise, senior forward Seth Tuttle – in addition to his offensive prowess (15.1 PPG) – has been virtually immovable on the block this season, suffocating opposing big men and cleaning up the defensive glass (20.9% DReb). If Fred VanVleet can’t push the ball and Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton don’t hit outside shots, it might be a long afternoon for the Shockers.

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New Mexico State Could Wind Up a Scary #16 Seed in March

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 29th, 2015

To call New Mexico State the class of the WAC would probably be an understatement; Marvin Menzies’ team ranks 162 spots higher in KenPom than its next best colleague and possesses visibly superior size and athleticism. In 2013-14, the Aggies demonstrated their ability to essentially sleepwalk through conference play and then out-talent the rest of the league (a shell of its former self) when it matters most, in March. In fact, they have now reached the NCAA Tournament three seasons in a row — last year taking San Diego State to overtime in the Round of 64 — and the story should be much the same this time around. That is, except for one major difference – whereas New Mexico State did enough to earn a #13 seed in the three years prior, it’s in no such position this season. With several key players just getting healthy and virtually zero opportunities left to build on an empty resume, the Aggies could wind up an intriguing case on Selection Sunday: an uncommonly tall, uncommonly talented #16 seed.

New Mexico State would be a unique #16-seed. [Getty Images]

New Mexico State could end up a unique 16-seed on Selection Sunday. (Getty Images)

The beginning of December was not kind to New Mexico State. In a matter of a couple days, the Aggies lost preseason all-conference forward Tshilidzi Nephawe for one month with a foot injury, reigning WAC Player of the Year Daniel Mullings for eight weeks with a broken finger, and learned 7’3’’ center Tanveer Bhullar – who hurt his ankle before the season started – would miss an additional six weeks of action. The team went on to lose six of its next eight contests (four without Mullings and all without Nephawe) to fall to 5-9 overall. And while several of the losses were surprisingly competitive – and none really all that bad – the overall dearth of quality wins has left Menzies’ team with little to hang its hat on; currently the Aggies have zero wins against teams ranked within the RPI top-100. As a result – unlike last year, when it could point to a road triumph at New Mexico – its own RPI (currently 176th) has suffered irreparable damage. Since no other WAC team has an RPI better than #242, and half the league sits below #300, the Aggies’ chance of significantly improving their number is slim. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm currently projects the Aggies as a #16 seed in one of the First Four play-in games, a position that could improve depending on what happens in other leagues, but one that could also get worse; with several guys still finding their legs and a recent loss to Seattle already on the books, there is no guarantee New Mexico State wins out.

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