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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Checking in on… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on February 25th, 2015

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

Where They Stand

The conference regular season is two weeks away from finishing. Using possession-based offensive and defensive efficiency differences, three distinct tiers in the Atlantic 10 have emerged. The top five teams (see table below) — Davidson, Dayton, Virginia Commonwealth, Richmond and Rhode Island — have separated themselves from their nine conference-mates by an efficiency margin that will not disappear over the next four games. Richmond and Rhode Island present “Nitty Gritty” profiles that read “NIT” rather than “NCAA,” and Massachusetts, lodged in the middle tier but possessing a winning conference record and an non-conference schedule strength ranked second in the league, will test eyeballs and gut-checks. Those three aside, however, the conference records and efficiency margins are behaving more than in seasons past. This is not the conference that sent six teams to the NCAAs last March, but lacking any clear locks (Virginia Commonwealth might be the only team that could lose out and still draw an at-large invitation) the A-10 has three solid candidates for the NCAA Tournament and three more bubble teams. Reviewing the remaining games indicates that bids for the bubble will most likely come at the expense of the conference’s three strongest candidates.

Table01150223

These Teams Can Make the NCAA Tournament If…

  • Virginia Commonwealth (21-6, 11-3) – The Rams have to stay healthy and not lose to George Mason (RPI #221). Losing Briante Weber was a blow, but the recent two-game skid happened while senior wing Treveon Graham, coach Shaka Smart’s penultimate go-to guy, was sidelined with a ankle sprain. The three-game bounce back came with Graham in the lineup. In a one possession game when a score is necessary Smart will give Graham the ball and call for a clear out. VCU’s offense and defense took a step back during much of the season, but Graham’s numbers (usually coupled with one from an assortment of complementary parts, especially Mel Johnson and Moe Alie-Cox) have been strong enough to carry the team against most opponents on most nights. With one of the more challenging four games slates remaining (Richmond, Dayton, Davidson and George Mason have a combined conference record of 31-25, 0.554), the priority is to not lose to GMU. A 3-1 finish (24-7, 14-4) is probably optimistic, but anything less would put the Rams into tie-breakers with at least one other conference team. VCU holds the tie-breaker over Rhode Island (the most likely tie), but a loss to Dayton would give the Flyers the tie-breaker and should the loss come to Davidson, the Rams and Wildcats would have to muddle through the next set of tie-breaker rules to determine the #1 seed in Brooklyn. The Rams have been a regular fixture in the conference tournament championship game since joining the conference in 2012, but have yet to win either the regular season (and take the #1 seed in the tournament) or the tournament championship game.

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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 24th, 2015

Team of the Week

San Diego State – It’s been a couple weeks since we did this because we took last week to compile our Best in the West list, so this award encompasses not only the Aztecs’ two by-the-book wins over New Mexico and San Jose State, but also the wins from the previous week over Wyoming and Colorado State that put them atop the Mountain West standings. The San Diego State offense is starting to come around (it’s now played four straight games where it scored better than a point per possession); the Aztecs’ defense is still downright scary; and if they can find a way on Saturday to get revenge on Boise State for a beat-down earlier this month, they’ll be headed into March on quite a roll.

Winston Shepard and the Aztecs Are Rolling (AP)

Winston Shepard and the Aztecs Are Rolling (AP)

Player of the Week

Winston Shepard, Jr, San Diego State – From the moment he stepped on the court for the Aztecs, it has been clear that Shepard has voluminous skills on the basketball court. His long frame and athleticism help make him a terrific defensive threat. He’s a willing and alert passer. He’s got a nice handle and the ability to use it to get into the lane and make plays. There is really only about one thing he hasn’t been particularly good at, and it’s a pretty important one: shooting the ball. However, over the past couple of weeks, the endless work that Shepard has put in in trying to improve that aspect of his game has begun to pay dividends. A career 24.5 percent three-point shooter, Shepard has made five of his last 10 shots from deep and 14 of 20 from the free throw line, and as a result, he’s averaging nearly 16 points per game over the past two weeks.

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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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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa on February 10th, 2015

Team of the Week

Air Force – Maybe it is proof of the power of the home-court in the Mountain West (note that Ken Pomeroy carves out an altitude exception here to the declining value of the home court). Maybe it was visiting teams overlooking the previously 2-8 Falcons, a team run down by injuries. Maybe it was just plain old college basketball craziness. But, whatever the case, Air Force invited both New Mexico and Wyoming into Clune Arena this weekend and sent both those teams packing with losses. Against the Lobos on Wednesday, they scored the final nine points of the game, holding New Mexico scoreless for nearly seven minutes down the stretch, to pull out the close win. Then over the weekend, they absolutely put it to a Larry Nance-less Wyoming squad on the way to a 23-point victory. While they’ve struggled with injuries all year long, the Falcons are now about as healthy as they’re going to get this year and seem intent on making the most of it.

Dave Pilipovich and Air Force Are Riding High After A 2-0 Week (Isaiah Downing, USA Today)

Dave Pilipovich and Air Force Are Riding High After A 2-0 Week (Isaiah Downing, USA Today)

Player of the Week

Derrick Marks, Sr, Boise State – There were quite a few other solid candidates for this honor this week (Marek Olesinski, J.J. Avila, Rashad Vaughn and Marks’ own teammates James Webb for starters). But really, as long as Marks keeps playing as well as he currently is, I’m just going to keep him penciled in about this spot. This week, his numbers actually dipped a bit, as the length and athleticism of San Diego State gave him trouble on Sunday and held him below a 100 offensive rating for the first time since January 10. Still, Marks manufactured 19 points in a variety of ways and kept the Broncos rolling on their way to the team’s seventh-straight win. For the week, Marks average 21 points, five boards, a couple assists and a couple steals while shooting it at a 56.9 eFG%.

Newcomer of the Week

Rashad Vaughn, Fr, UNLV – The final result certainly wasn’t what Runnin’ Rebel fans wanted, as a one-point loss at Colorado State in one of the more entertaining games of the season left UNLV out in the cold. But Vaughn was spectacular early and often throughout this game, scoring 30 points on 21 field goal attempts, including six three-pointers. For the year, Vaughn sits behind only Marks among conference players in scoring average.

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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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Mike Lonergan Has GW in the Mix for an A-10 Title

Posted by Alex Moscoso on February 8th, 2015

When someone says that a game in early February is a “must-win,” they’re almost certainly guilty of hyperbole. But George Washington’s overtime win over Dayton at the end of last week had the feeling of such a game. Coming into the night on a two-game losing streak, the Colonials were in danger of falling out of the bubble picture, but now they remain in the running for an at-large bid and perhaps an Atlantic 10 championship. The moment almost got away from them, though, as they let victory slip from their hands twice in the final seven minutes. First, GW allowed Jordan Sibert to send the game to overtime by giving him enough space to knock down a three. That was followed by a blown five-point overtime lead and unlikely win after Joe McDonald put back Kethan Savage’s blocked shot at the last second. It was an exciting game that now puts Mike Lonergan‘s Colonials within striking distance of a regular season A-10 championship — something his program hasn’t experienced in nine long years.

Mike Lonergan has the Colonials In contention for an A-10 championship (GW Hatchet / Jordan Emont)

Mike Lonergan has the Colonials in contention for an A-10 championship. (GW Hatchet/Jordan Emont)

The DC area native cut his teeth as an assistant at Maryland before becoming the head coach at Catholic University and later Vermont. George Washington hired him to return to the District in 2011 after dismissing Karl Hobbs following a stretch of disappointing seasons. During Lonergan’s four-season tenure in Foggy Bottom, his trajectory mirrors his previous stops. A 10-win opening season led to 13 victories the next, followed by 24 with an NCAA Tournament appearance — the school’s first since 2007 — last season. Lonergan has had to deal with a top-heavy Atlantic 10 this year — Davidson, Rhode Island, and UMass have joined Dayton and VCU among the top tier – and the loss of two critical seniors from last year’s team, Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood. But with one month left in the season, his team is once again closing in on 20 wins, sits just on the verge of the bubble, and is only one game behind the Rams (both VCU and Rhode Island) for first place in the conference. If George Washington can get past a bad Duquense team on Wednesday night, that will set up a Valentine’s Day match-up at home against a vulnerable VCU squad with first place on the line. Lonergan was able to get the better of Shaka Smart’s group last season at home, and hopes to do it again in pursuit of his first A-10 regular season championship.

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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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