New York Times writer Zach Schonbrun experienced a sense of relief among the various schools at last week’s Big East Media Day in Manhattan. After many seasons played under the shroud of conference realignment, culminating with the awkwardness of last season’s farewell tour for Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame, the Big East is now a settled, basketball-driven league focused on private schools in metropolitan markets. While the conference’s new members — Butler, Creighton, and Xavier — are all located in the Midwest, they fit into the league quite well culturally. St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin actually thinks the new schools fit in better than some of the public universities that have moved on to the American Athletic Conference, and the schools who left for the ACC for largely football-based reasons: “It’s not like a ‘Sesame Street’ deal — which one doesn’t belong… You’ve got a tree, a bush, some seaweed and then a truck. It just didn’t fit. I think now we have a league that’s more similar.”
Georgetown lost an excellent player to the NBA Draft in standout forward Otto Porter, but guard Markel Starks thinks that the Hoyas are more than just one player and that his team will look to prove that this season: “We play as a unit… We play as a group. Obviously, we just lost a great player. Even still, with or without him, we play as a unit. … I think we can still be a very dangerous team.” Starks, now a senior, will probably bear much of the weight of Porter’s absence in the scoring column, after averaging 12.8 points per game last season. He will be joined in the backcourt by D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, who proved capable of exploding for big point totals last season. Smith-Rivera scored at least 14 points in three of his last four regular season games last season, and dropped 33 in 34 minutes against DePaul on February 20.
One of the major changes fans will notice in the conference this year is a lack of legendary coaches on the sidelines, although the Big East will not be hurting for talent in that spot. Gone are Hall of Famers like Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino, but rising stars like Marquette’s Buzz Williams and Georgetown’s John Thompson IIIare poised to lead the conference into this new era. Thompson agrees that the coaching talent in the league is very high: “If you look around the room, the quality of coaching is outstanding. Yes, we lost some Hall of Fame coaches, but I don’t think too many teams want to go up against the guys in this room. Every game is going to be a battle. That was true last year; that’s going to be true this year.” Williams also believes in the overall quality of the league, and thinks it stands up with the best conferences in college basketball: “Every coach is going to say they play in the best league, but if you objectively study the numbers, I think what this league has done the last five years speaks for itself. I think this year that will hold firm, too.”
Even without the likes of Syracuse, Louisville, and UConn, many are excited about the prospects of the Big East, especially those at the league’s three new schools: Butler, Creighton, and Xavier. Between the television contract with Fox Sports 1 and the ability to play at Madison Square Garden, the Big East provides a great increase in exposure for the former Horizon League, Missouri Valley Conference, and Atlantic 10 teams. Rumble in the Garden‘s Chris Ronca caught up with Xavier’s Chris Mack and Creighton’s Greg McDermott, who were both very excited about these new possibilities. Mack says his players are excited about playing at MSG: “Playing for your conference championship in the Mecca is an amazing opportunity for Xavier fans and players.” McDermott talked about the league’s TV contract and it’s impact on the Creighton program: “[Creighton’s] fans have longed for this for awhile.” McDermott went on to say that “with Fox [Sports] 1, it’s very exciting for the program… there’ll be a lot of new ideas with how [Creighton’s] product is shown nationally.”
Sports Illustrated‘s [and RTC‘s] Chris Johnson’s “Stock Watch” series sets its gaze on the Big East, and he’s quite bullish on Villanova, while throwing a bit of shade on Butler. Johnson cites Villanova’s surge in the middle of last season, where the Wildcats knocked off top five Louisville and Syracuse outfits in a a five-day stretch, as evidence that Jay Wright’s club is very dangerous. He likes the combination of Ryan Arcidiacono, JayVaughn Pinkston, and Daniel Ochefu, and believes that if the team continues to get to the free throw line and play stingy defense, it can push for the top of the league standings. As for Butler, Johnson believes that the loss of Brad Stevens in conjunction with an increase in the difficulty of conference play will hurt the Bulldogs, as will the departures of Rotnei Clark and Andrew Smith as well as the injury to Roosevelt Jones.
I. Renko is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Lexington after Saturday’s Third Round game between #3 Marquette and #6 Butler. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
Three Key Takeaways:
Buzz Williams Got It Done For the Second Time in the NCAAs (AP)
Survive and Advance — In a pod full of mid-majors with Cinderella history, it was the Big East power who emerged at the end of the day, but not before being pushed to its limits. This was more of a see-saw affair than Marquette’s great escape against Davidson, and they seemed to take control of the game mid-way through the second half. But Butler was resilient, and the Golden Eagles almost threw away the win, just as Davidson did on Thursday, with an errant inbounds pass with three seconds left and a two-point lead. No doubt, memories of Marquette’s fateful loss to Butler on a buzzer beater in Maui creeped into the minds of Marquette fans. But a well-executed defensive scheme on the final possession resulted in an ugly three-point attempt from Andrew Smith that was well off the mark. After the game, Buzz Williams refused to explain his defensive setup, explaining that given all the close games Marquette has played — and is likely to play again — he wasn’t about to reveal state secrets.
Butler Couldn’t Escape the Turnover Trap — The biggest advantage of Butler’s tournament draw is that none of the three teams in its pod is very good at forcing turnovers. A major reason that Butler went 0-4 vs St. Louis and VCU this year was its poor ball control. Through three halves of basketball this week, Butler committed just 10 turnovers, and in the first half tonight, Marquette had zero fast break points — a big reason the Bulldogs entered intermission with an 8-point lead. But Marquette stepped up the pressure in the second half tonight, and Butler started to crack. They coughed up the ball 10 times after halftime, allowing Marquette to score eight fast-break points and 15 total off turnovers.
Rotnei Clarke Faded Down the Stretch — Clarke had a tremendous first half, showing off not just his dead-eye three-point shot, but also his underrated ability to score inside the arc, with an array of pull-up jumpers, runners, and drives to the rim. But the cooling of his hot hand in the second half deprived Butler of a reliable scoring option. After starting off 7-of-10, Clarke made just one of his last seven shots. With Roosevelt Jones struggling to a 3-of-11 performance, Butler was left with few scoring options. They labored to score, and while they managed to keep scraping points together, in part due to Andrew Smith’s yeoman effort underneath, they couldn’t scratch out enough.
Star of the Game: Vander Blue had a tough act to follow, after his late-game heroics gave the Golden Eagles a last-second win over Davidson in the Second Round. But he more than came through, putting the team on his back and carrying them to a win with an outstanding performance at both ends of the floor. Blue finished with 29 points on just 15 shots and grabbed four steals. Two of those swipes came on crucial back-to-back possessions late in the game, both of which Blue converted into easy fast break points, turning a 2-point deficit into a 2-point lead in 60 seconds. Blue had so worked himself to exhaustion that after those two plays that his coach had to give him a short rest. But he had enough energy after coming back to hit the biggest shot of the game — a corner three-pointer with 1:26 to play that tied the game at 69.
Jimmy Kelley is an RTC correspondent. He filed this story after Thursday night’s game between Butler and UMass in Amherst.
Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs suffered one the most lopsided losses of the conference season last Saturday when they were on the wrong end of an 84-52 blowout at the hands of VCU. In the days following the loss the Butler players had team meetings while Stevens and his staff ran some of the most intense, focused practices they have had all season. The result? A convincing 73-62 victory over a scrappy UMass team on the Minutemen’s senior night Thursday. Eleven points may not sound convincing but Butler played their game the entire night and had a near-capacity crowd of 9,341 scrambling for the exits before second-to-last media timeout of the second half.
Roosevelt Jones (right) and Butler rebounded from a 32-point loss to knock off UMass on Thursday night. (Daily Collegian/UMass)
“[The VCU loss] hit hard,” Butler’s Andrew Smith said. “We knew we had to make changes, define everyone’s roles. We told certain guys ‘we need you to do more of this and less of this.’ If everyone plays hard we’re a tough team to beat.” The win was Butler’s first in over a week after losses to VCU and St. Louis sent the Bulldogs into a bit of a tailspin. Ranked as high as #9 in the AP poll this season and with wins over Indiana and Gonzaga on their resume it was apparent that something had changed over the last week and it was something Stevens was going to have to work on fixing. UMass had given several teams scares this season and employs their own fast-paced style under coach Derek Kellogg, but the Bulldogs had seen what real pressure defense is and would not be shaken by the Minutemen.
Brendon Mulvihill is an RTC contributor. You can find him @TheMulv on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.
This weekend has several important conference re-matches and as well as first time clashes between conference leaders. It should be an action packed weekend. Let’s get to the breakdowns!
#10 Louisville at #11 Syracuse – 12:00 PM EST, Saturday on CBS (*****)
Syracuse has lost two straight and five of their last nine. They have been inconsistent on offensive, particularly from the outside. They go up against a Louisville squad that is no stranger to struggles this season either. The Cardinals hit a three-game slide at the end of January that had a few folks questioning where this team was headed. Since that time though, they are 7-1 and only one game back in the Big East. Syracuse beat Louisville 70-68 in January in a close contest that came down to the final possession. The Cardinals have clearly struggled against long, athletic teams. Asking 6’0″ Russ Smith and 6’0″ Peyton Siva to guard 6″6″ Michael Carter-Williams and 6’4″ Brandon Triche is a tall order to say the least. Look for the Orange to exploit the mismatch at guard all night. Rick Pitino must game plan to help his guards, otherwise it could be another tough one for Louisville. The Cardinals also need Gorgui Dieng to contribute more on the offensive end. His size will help free up Smith and Siva on the outside. Expect another close battle at the Carrier Dome as these two teams battle for conference and tournament seeding.
Peyton Siva has a lot to prove in the second go around with the Orange.
#20 Butler at Virginia Commonwealth – 12:00 PM EST, Saturday on ESPN2 (****)
While Butler has amazing wins against Indiana and Gonzaga, they have struggled against the top Atlantic 10 teams. They are 0-3 against Saint Louis and LaSalle and now face VCU for the first time this season. VCU is also winless against Saint Louis and LaSalle, so Butler is not alone in their struggles. The key to this match-up will be turnovers. VCU creates turnovers on 27.3% of an opponents possessions. Butler turns the ball over on 20% of its offensive possessions. The Bulldogs cannot afford to empty possession in this game, otherwise they will lose. They must get into the half-court offense and establish 6’11” Andrew Smith early. Smith’s match-up against VCU’s Juvante Reddic will be critical. Butler needs Smith’s offense to win this game.
This weekend marks the end of the decade-long Bracketbuster era — or experiment, depending on your perspective. Sadly, if appropriately, it looks like the event will go out with more of a whimper than a bang. Not a single game features a top 25 team, resulting in little hype for this year’s slate. But for true mid-major basketball fans, no top 25 ranking, or lack thereof, is going to dissuade them from devouring the late season, inter-conference action among the country’s best, under-the-radar-until-March teams. Here’s a preview of the five Bracketbuster games we’re most looking forward to, followed by an updated Top 10, our weekly honor roll, and the most compelling non-Bracketbuster games of the coming week.
Can Matthew Dellavedova And His Prominent Mouthpiece Lead the Gaels to a Much-Needed Win Over Creighton? (Las Vegas Sun / Sam Morris)
Creighton at St. Mary’s (6 pm, ESPN) — Both teams enter what is perhaps the premier Bracketbuster matchup with a great deal to prove. Creighton’s hot 17-1 start has given way to a rough 5-5 stretch, as the depth of the MVC has taken its toll. In four of those five losses, Creighton’s once unstoppable offense slowed to a pace of less than a point per possession. An at-large Tournamentbid remains a safe bet, even with a loss to St. Mary’s, but the Bluejays are no doubt looking to this game to reignite their offense and their season. St. Mary’s, on the other hand, is in desperate need of a quality win for its Tournament resume. Having been swept by Gonzaga, Saturday’s matchup is a virtual must-win for the Gaels. Both teams have highly efficient offenses that rely heavily on the three-point shot. Whichever defense can step up its game may emerge with the win.
Ohio at Belmont (10 pm, ESPN) — This should be a really entertaining game between two teams who love to run and gun. But for the colors of their jerseys, it may be hard to tell the two apart, as the Bobcats and Bruins have remarkably similar statistical profiles. Both are high-possession squads that shoot more than 40 percent of their field goals from three-point range and rank in the top 20 nationally in forcing turnovers. Both have high effective field goal percentages, but rebound poorly and allow their opponents to shoot far more free throws than they do. Toss in a great point guard matchup between seniors D.J. Cooper and Kerron Johnson, and you have the ingredients for a great nightcap to the day’s action.
South Dakota State at Murray State (8 pm, ESPN2) — Neither team is as good as it was last season, but both returned their star player. And it’s their matchup at the point guard spot, with Nate Wolters squaring off against Isaiah Canaan, that makes this a must-see game. The two players are the heartbeats of their respective team’s offenses. Each uses roughly 30 percent of all possessions, ranking them in the top 50 in the country. Wolters has been on a particularly nasty tear of late, averaging more than 33 points over his last five games, though two of his 30-plus efforts in that stretch were in defeat. Canaan, meanwhile, is coming off his own 35-point outburst in a win over Morehead State.
Detroit at Wichita State (4 pm, ESPN2) — Wichita State has bounced back from a recent three-game swoon with a four-game win streak that includes two close victories over Illinois State and Indiana State this past week. They’ll be the favorites against Detroit, but his game has definite upset potential. Detroit is on the upswing, winning six of their last seven, and developing a potent offensive attack with a multitude of options, from Ray McCallum’s attacking ability to Jason Calliste’s three-point shot to Nick Minnerath’s versatile inside-out game to Doug Anderson’s physical interior play. The Titans will try to push the tempo, while the Shockers will try to slow things down and pound the ball inside to their big men Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, who may find success against Detroit’s mediocre interior defense.
Denver at Northern Iowa (8 pm, ESPN3) — After a rough 4-6 start to MVC play, Northern Iowa has righted the ship and fought its way back to where we thought it would always be — at the top of the league standings, just a step behind Wichita State and Creighton. They face a Denver team that has flown a bit under the radar, recovering from a slow start to the season to win 13 of their last 14 games. A trip to Cedar Falls will be a test of just how far the Pioneers have come. Expect a low-possession, halfcourt-oriented game, with a steady barrage of three-point shots. The Panthers have a balanced attack, with five players averaging between 9 and 13 points. Denver will turn primarily to Chris Udofia, the versatile forward who is the hub of their Princeton offense.
And now on to our updated Top 10 rankings, weekly honor roll, and the (other) games we’re keeping an eye on …
*Ed. Note: the statistics in this column were aggregated prior to Tuesday night’s St. Louis-VCU game.
Difference Margins in Conference Games: The offense/defense difference margins are beginning to “behave” as teams with winning records (Charlotte and Temple excepted) have positive difference margins, while teams with losing records (Dayton excepted) have negative difference margins. Temple, with a 5-5 record, has a -0.001, just two one-thousandths under “positive.” Tiers within the winning and losing groups continues to be messy, and occasionally explains why a team is succeeding or failing.
Looking over the “standings” this week a few things jump out…
Fordham and Duquesne are losing contact with the rest of the conference, and that includes 3-8 Rhode Island. For the Dukes, with a new coach and a program in disarray, the trend is not surprising as wins are hard to come by. Fordham, coming into the season with senior all-conference forward Chris Gaston and a promising young backcourt, has to be a disappointment to fans and university administrators. Granted, Gaston has struggled with injuries and extended absences, but the current late season fade continues a pattern established over the last five seasons.
What’s that you say? Jim Crews and Saint Louis are running away from the rest of the conference. (AP)
Saint Louis appears to be running away from the rest of the league. If the Bilikens’ numbers hold up over the course of this week (they play Butler next, after eviscerating VCU last night), expect coach Jim Crews’ squad to emerge with the #1 seed going into Brooklyn and up in the NCAA field where they are currently seeded in the #9-#11 range.
Temple’s -0.001 efficiency margin reflects the fact that the Owls have had a series of one-point decisions (more in Temple’s team report below) against both stronger teams (Charlotte) and weaker teams (Duquesne).
Going, going… The topic touched on during virtually every Division I basketball game over the last week is “Who is in?” usually accompanied by a discussion of bubble teams – right side/wrong side, S-curves and “What happened to…”. Alhough the field is still under construction and opinions vary as to whether the Atlantic 10 will have six bids (Jerry Palm as of February 17) or four (Joe Lunardi and RTC’s own Daniel Evans), there is an emerging consensus that several preview “contenders” are in the field, somewhere on (or near) the bubble and clearly out of the conversation entirely. Some quick takes on the “bubble… sort of’s” and those who are “out”:
Charlotte – Jerry Palm lists the 49ers as a #11 seed and well beyond the “Last Four In” category. Daniels lists them on his bubble watch of February 18 while Lunardi remains silent. Can good conference wins versus Butler and Xavier really negate double-figure losses to Richmond, George Washington and Saint Louis? More than any A-10 team not named Temple, winning their last five games going into the conference tournament will make or break this resume. Read the rest of this entry »
Danny Spewak (@dspewak) is an RTC Correspondent. He filed this from Chaifetz Arena following Saint Louis’ 75-58 victory over Butler.
The world’s leading scientists have two theories on Butler coach Brad Stevens. The first is simple. He is a robot. The second is a bit more complicated — that Stevens is technically a human being, but he intentionally bottles up his emotions on the sidelines and plays up his poker face to keep his basketball team under control in all situations. Not even Einstein’s quite sure how the 36-year-old coaching prodigy’s brain works, but every hypothesis concludes with the same result. Brad Stevens is a mastermind. He is a genius with an unshakeable demeanor, a fierce general who leads with his actions not his words. He never screams, never yells, never loses his cool, never argues with the officials, never lashes out at reporters and does not even offer a fist-pump when his team wins on the most improbable of buzzer-beaters. Nothing rattles Brad Stevens.
Except for the Saint Louis defense. Oh, those Billikens defenders could send General Patton running for the hills. As he watched his team turn the ball over time after time after time after time during a humbling 75-58 loss at Chaifetz Arena on Thursday night, Stevens showed his human side on more than one occasion. When Khyle Marshall threw the ball away under his own basket in the first half and gave Saint Louis two free points – one of 16 turnovers before the break – Stevens called a timeout and lit into his junior forward. Freshman Devontae Morgan was the next victim of verbal abuse after some sort of indiscretion on the defensive end. Stevens chased around official Ted Valentine at times, and in the postgame press conference, he fully admitted his ninth ranked team looked like a disaster for 40 minutes. “It was an absolute joy to watch one team play,” Stevens said. “Problem was, it wasn’t the team I was coaching.” It wasn’t as though Stevens put on a show with his antics on Thursday night. Compared to the rest of the hooligans roaming the sidelines in Division I basketball, he looked like Mother Theresa. Still, Stevens showed noticeable frustration as his team suffered through a 26-4 Billiken run in the first half. The Bulldogs had difficulty getting the ball up the court and running even a single set in the halfcourt.
SLU Players Got to Celebrate Too During the Rush The Court
It was oddly reminiscent of another vintage performance by Saint Louis back in December, when the Billikens held New Mexico to fewer points (13) in the first half than turnovers (16). They punish teams with picture-perfect help defense, and they have quick forwards who may not block a ton of shots but certainly disrupt opponents with their foot speed. Wing Dwayne Evans’ hands are all over the place. Cory Remuken is the shot-blocker and hustle player in the frontcourt. Jordair Jett is like the Tasmanian devil in the backcourt. They are fast, tough, smart and almost impossible to score against when they are at their best, but Saint Louis stepped it up a notch against the Atlantic 10 newcomers. “We’re just getting stop after stop, just converting on offense, but it started on the defensive end,” Jett said. “We’re just thinking, ‘Step on it. Make the lead bigger.’”
Brendon Mulvihill is an RTC contributor. You can find him @TheMulv on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.
The top teams in several conferences go head-to-head and a non-conference mid-major battle in the midwest should provide a spectacular weekend of college hoops. Let’s get to the breakdowns.
#6 Syracuse at #1 Louisville – 4:00 PM EST, Saturday on ESPN (*****)
Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino Meet on Saturday Again…
The cream of the Big East crop lock up in what should be an epic defensive battle. This may be the best defensive match-up we will see all season. Jim Boeheim’s match-up zone versus Rick Pitino’s press will be fun to watch. Louisville is known for its ability to create lots of turnovers, but Syracuse is almost just as good at causing teams to make mistakes. Additionally, Syracuse blocks a bunch of shots and locks down the perimeter. Louisville counters with its own shot-blocker deluxe in Gorgui Dieng. The question for Syracuse is how they will break the Louisville press — look to see if they use their length to make passes over the top of the Cardinals’ defense to get down the court. Also, watch the guard match-up between Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams of Syracuse and Peyton Siva and Russ Smith of Louisville. Triche and Carter-Williams have a significant size advantage that could make scoring from the Louisville backcourt limited, although Smith just seems to find ways to score anyway. Ultimately, this game will come down to whose defense plays better, but this game is shaping up to be a classic.
#17 Missouri at #8 Florida – 2:00 PM EST, Saturday on ESPN (****)
Florida is coming off a dominant win against Texas A&M and is beginning to separate itself from the rest of the SEC. A win by Missouri on the road would be huge for the Tigers as they head into a stretch of games against the bottom tier of the league. Missouri needs to find a way to control the offensive boards without Laurence Bowers available if they are going to have a shot at winning this game. The Gators have been one of the toughest teams to shoot against this season, so don’t expect the Tigers to get a lot of great looks. However, as one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the country, the Tigers have a chance if they can get put-backs and tip-ins. The key will be the battle down low between Alex Oriakhi and Patric Young so pay close attention to those two big men battling inside. Also, keep an eye on Missouri’s perimeter defense. Florida is taking 40% of its total shots from three — if the Gators’ shooters are hitting from the outside, it’s going to be tough sledding for Missouri in its first SEC trip to Gainesville.
Oregon at #21 UCLA – 4:00 PM EST, Saturday on CBS (****)
The Pac-12 is looking like a three team battle between Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon. With the Ducks already knocking off the Wildcats, they can make a huge statement early in the conference season with a road win against the Bruins. It won’t be easy, however, as UCLA has quietly put together a 10-game winning streak including back-to-back road wins against Utah and Colorado. Keep a close eye on turnovers in this game. Oregon is turning the ball over frequently at a rate of over 21% of its possessions. We have seen road teams get down early recently because of multiple mistakes in a hostile environment. If the Bruins can create turnovers early with some tough defense, it will make things very difficult for the Ducks in Pauley Pavilion. Also, watch the rebounding numbers. The Ducks are a far superior team on the glass at both ends. UCLA’s Kyle Anderson and the Wear brothers need to box out. Rebounding will keep Oregon in the game and could prove to be the difference if they are able to avoid turnovers.
Walker Carey is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Wednesday night’s game between Richmond and Butler. You can follow him at @walkerRcarey.
Butler has not lost a game since falling to Illinois in the championship game of the Maui Invitational on November 21, but the Bulldogs did suffer a loss this past Saturday when leading scorer Rotnei Clarke experienced a sprained neck in the team’s win at Dayton. It became known Monday night that Clarke would miss two games — Wednesday versus Richmond and Saturday night against #9 Gonzaga — as he recovers from the injury. In tonight’s game with Richmond, the Bulldogs proved there was a lot more to their team than just Clarke as they led the whole game on their way to a dominant 62-47 victory. The following are three thoughts from Wednesday’s game:
Butler completely outworked Richmond on the boards (and that might be an understatement) – Butler outrebounded Richmond by a 53-20 margin tonigh — think about that. Butler had as many offensive rebounds as Richmond had total rebounds. The Bulldogs effectively held the Spiders to just six offensive boards. Those 20 offensive rebounds by the Bulldogs led to 21 second-chance points. Butler’s inside presence, led by starters Andrew Smith and Roosevelt Jones along with reserve Kameron Woods, grabbed a total of 26 rebounds while also playing hard-nosed defense that prevented the Spiders from getting anything going in the post. On a night where the Bulldogs shot just 37.5% from the field, they used their dominant rebounding effort to pave the way to an important conference victory.
Brad Stevens Knows How To Direct His Team
Andrew Smith’s production has been key to Butler’s success – In Butler’s December 15 win over Indiana, Smith went toe-to-toe with National Player of the Year candidate Cody Zeller and held his own – even outplaying him for stretches of the upset victory. Smith has proven that his performance was no fluke, as he has become a very important part of the team’s success on both ends of the court. Since Atlantic 10 play began, Smith has taken his game to an even higher level. In the conference opener at Saint Joseph’s, he tallied 24 points and collected 10 rebounds. In the Bulldogs’ win at Dayton, Smith’s senior leadership along with his 13 points helped lead the team through the adversity of Clarke’s injury to another important road win. Against Richmond, Smith turned in another quality performance by controlling the paint and tallying 15 points and seven rebounds. The Atlantic 10 is going to provide the Bulldogs with stiff competition each night, so they are going to need Smith to remain a strong inside presence in order to keep winning. Read the rest of this entry »
Another Saturday, Another Scalp: Reeling from an inexplicable 10-point loss to Canisius (72-62) on December 19, Temple bounced back with a stunning 83-79 upset of #3 Syracuse, all the more surprising given that it happened in the confines of Syracuse’s “second home”, Madison Square Garden, on December 22. The Orange, notorious for not leaving the state of New York before the start of conference play, were unable to contain Khalif Wyatt and sophomore center Anthony Lee as both scored career-high points. Wyatt, a slasher who can play either guard spot in addition to the small forward was a perfect 15-of-15 from the line on the way to scoring 33 points. Lee was manhandled by Duke’s Mason Plumlee two Saturdays before, schooled fellow Philadelphian Rakeem Christmas and his teammate James Southerland to grab nine rebounds to go with his career-high 21 points. Butler traveled to Nashville the next Saturday and housed the Commodores of Vanderbilt by 19 points, 68-49. The Bulldogs’ backcourt paced the team with 40 points (Rotnei Clarke – 22, Kellen Dunham – 12, Alex Barlow – six) while Khyle Marshall missed a double-double by a single point (nine points and 11 rebounds).
Versus Other Conferences
With nearly 98% of the non-conference schedule on the books (as of January 1), the Atlantic 10 has compiled an outstanding 64.3% winning percentage (126-70). Bettering their 2011-12 winning percentage of 62.6% (107-64), the conference posted a number of superb wins over power conference teams in the process.
The mark is not without a few blemishes, especially with respect to the seven power conferences where the A-10’s conference-wide record declined over their mark last season. Especially disappointing was the conference mark versus the ACC (3-10, 0.231) and Big East (6-11, 0.353). While they continue to dominate against those non-power conferences with whom they share a similar profile (the CAA, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, West Coast Conference, and Western Athletic Conference), the overall record masks losing records versus the Missouri Valley Conference (3-4, 0.429) and the West Coast Conference (1-3, 0.250).
The teams largely wrap up non-conference play over the mid-winter break, with only a few standings-changing games on the last and this week. Games/records are through January 2.
Butler (9-2, #18 AP) – The defense of 2011-12 is starting to round into form for the Bulldogs. Coach Brad Stevens’ squad has allowed opponents on average 0.93 points per possession in the six (Division I) games since their loss to Illinois on November 21. After five starts, freshman Kellen Dunham returned to his sixth man role and appears to be thriving. If Player of the Year polling commenced today, transfer Rotnei Clarke would garner more than a few votes outside of Indianapolis, but as much as the newcomers (Clarke and Dunham) have sparked the Bulldogs, the contributions of the front court, Roosevelt Jones, Khyle Marshall and Andrew Smith are key. Though not the focal point of the offense, Smith and Marshall are a devastatingly efficient combination, contributing over 1.1 points per possession on offense while hauling in over 12% of the offensive rebounds apiece when they are on the court. Butler will host Penn and New Orleans before opening conference play on the road against Saint Joseph’s (see below) on January 9. Read the rest of this entry »
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after last night’s game between Butler and Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Butler came into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt boosting a resume’ that included wins over Marquette and North Carolina in a run to the championship game of the Maui Invitational, and an upset of then top-ranked Indiana in the landmark game of the season on December 15. On the other hand, it included an early-season thrashing from a pedestrian Xavier team, as well as a blowout loss to Illinois in the Maui final. After playing for the national championship in consecutive seasons, coach Brad Stevens’s 2011-12 squad missed the NCAA Tournament in its Horizon League swan song, and as the Bulldogs head into their inaugural run through the Atlantic 10 conference schedule, the question facing them is whether they can be a dominant team in the league, or whether they are merely a team that raises its level of play for big games but is prone to lapses against lesser opponents. If Saturday’s second-half demolishing of a mediocre Commodores club is any indication, Butler may be the team to beat in the A-10.
Rotnei Clarke and Butler Easily Handled the Commodores in the Second Half Last Night
The Bulldogs led just 25-22 at the break, but came out in the second half and blitzed Vanderbilt with an early 19-7 run, riding the hot shooting of senior guard Rotnei Clarke to a 68-49 win. After missing his first six attempts of the game, Clarke went on a torrid run in the latter part of the first half and early part of the second that saw him hit five three-pointers on his way to a game-high 22 points. The Bulldogs’ only other double figure scorer was freshman guard Kellen Dunham, who finished with 12. “When Kellen and Rodney get going, we should win. Those should be the nights we win,” Stevens said after the game. Given the performance of his two guards, and the second half run, Stevens had to be pleased that his team took care of an inferior opponent in a hostile road environment.
Chris Johnson is an RTC correspondent. He was in Evanston for Butler’s 74-65 victory over Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena Saturday night. You can follow him @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The biggest weak spot in Butler’s season body of work entering tonight’s game at Northwestern was a road defeat at Xavier. It was the Bulldogs’ second game of the season, and their only true road test. It was hard to know what to make of that result, mostly because Xavier itself remained something of a mystery. But over the next four weeks, as Butler notched impressive victories over Marquette and North Carolina at the Maui Invitational, and handled three consecutive home tune-ups against Hanover, Ball State and IUPUI, the perception lingered – however faint – that Butler needed to prove itself in a hostile road environment before drawing a long-term prospectus about the Bulldogs’ chances of competing in the new and improved Atlantic 10.
The Bulldogs dominated the paint against Northwestern, with Smith leading the charge en route to his best performance of the season (Photo credit: AP Photo).
Those doubts all but evaporated at Welsh-Ryan Arena Saturday night. Butler showed the poise, savvy and steadfast discipline that’s come to define Brad Stevens’ recent wave of national success. More importantly, it flashed newfound strength on the low block, a physical disadvantage that’s limited Butler in recent seasons against athletically superior teams. Senior center Andrew Smith had scored the ball at an efficient rate through the early part of the season, posting a 114.0 offensive rating and a 55.1% effective field goal percentage, but his usage rate (19.6 percent of available possessions) ranked behind two teammates and his main priorities typically hinged on defense and rebounding. Smith proved Saturday night he’s more than capable of carrying the load offensively. “I thought he played his best game of the year,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said following the Bulldogs’ 74-65 victory in at Welsh-Ryan Arena. “We needed every bit of it.”