Championship Fortnight continues with two more conference tourneys tipping off today, so what better way to get you through the next week-plus of games than to break down each of the Other 26′s postseason events. Today, the CAA and SoCon get started.
Dates: March 7-10 Site: Baltimore Arena (Baltimore, MD)
What to expect: Help may have arrived just in time for Delaware. After starting 11-0 in conference play, the Blue Hens dropped two of their final five games and appeared vulnerable without starting point guard Jarvis Threatt and key reserve Marvin King-Davis, each suspended at the end of January. Both players have since returned to the court and will likely prove much-needed in the team’s run for the automatic bid. It won’t come easy: Towson, the preseason league favorite, enters the tournament on a six-game winning streak and is equipped with the conference’s best player, Jerrelle Benimon. Since the event will be held in Baltimore instead of Richmond this year, both teams should feel comfortable — Towson is right down the road, and Delaware’s campus is only one hour away. Drexel and William & Mary could be semifinal threats, but expect a Hens-Tigers championship game on Monday night.
We are a little more than four weeks away from Selection Sunday. And the bubble picture is as muddled as ever. Let’s check out this week’s O26 storylines:
Is Harvard in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament?
Is it possible Harvard might miss the NCAA Tournament? (Robert F. Worley)
Harvard was basically penciled into the NCAA Tournament before the season began. If the Crimson weren’t able to secure an at-large bid, certainly they’d run away with the Ivy League. Right? Well, all of the sudden Harvard isn’t looking like such a sure thing. You can thank Yale and its shocking 74-67 win AT Harvard last Saturday for that. Now those two sit atop the Ivy League standings with a 5-1 conference record. Furthermore, Yale boasts a more favorable schedule the rest of the way. The Bulldogs close out the season with a combination of four home games and four road games, including the return home game with Harvard. The Crimson, on the other hand, hit the road for six of their final eight contests. Is it time to hit the panic button for Harvard? Not quite yet, but the Ivy favorite is making things much harder than they should be. It still wouldn’t be a surprise to see Harvard win the league by a few games and earn the conference’s automatic bid without much trouble. But this storyline definitely can’t be overlooked for now. Ken Pomeroy projects Harvard as the favorite in all eight of its games, and predicts the Crimson will win the league with a 9-3 final record. Pomeroy projects Yale as the favorite in five of its last eight games, predicting the Bulldogs will finish with a 10-4 conference mark. It would be a travesty to see such a talented team miss the Big Dance, but the possibility of that happening isn’t all that far-fetched.
Can VCU keep pace in the Atlantic 10 race?
Saint Louis is on the verge of running away with the A-10 regular-season title. The Billikens (9-0 in league play) host VCU (7-2 in league play) on Saturday with a chance to move three games ahead of the second-place Rams. That would be a lot of ground to make up with just six games left on the docket. SLU, the defending regular season and tournament champions, can go a long way toward a repeat with a win Saturday at a sold-out Chaifetz Arena. Sure, there’s a return game at VCU on March 1, the only game the Billikens aren’t favored to win the rest of the way, per Ken Pomeroy. And that includes a season-ending trip to Massachusetts. Pomeroy projects the Billikens to finish 14-2 to take the title, with VCU coming in second at 12-4. The Rams need to steal a win Saturday, otherwise it’s looking like two straight A-10 titles for SLU. For more insight on Saturday’s game, read Tommy Lemoine’s excellent preview.
Wichita State. The Shockers have been written about and discussed at length over the past several days, so there’s no need to overanalyze the implications of last week’s big road victories, followed up with a closer-than-expected home win on Tuesday night — most everyone understands the undefeated potential that now lies ahead. But that does not mean we shouldn’t still celebrate the accomplishment. The fact is, no other O26 program had near the expectations, attention or build-up that Wichita State did entering the week, and perhaps no other O26 team proved as focused, unwavering and simply excellent on the basketball court either. In two of its most difficult conference road tests of the season, Gregg Marshall’s club displayed the same mental and physical toughness it has all year long, locking down defensively — especially in key moments, when it needed it most — and draining timely shots to remain perfect and march one step closer to history.
Wichita State got the job done on the road last week. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
First, on Wednesday in Terre Haute, the Shockers found victory by responding with immediate answers for each crowd-igniting, lead-dwindling run that Indiana State threw at them. After the Sycamores used a late first half surge to pull within one at the break, Wichita State responded by outscoring the home squad 14-4 in the opening eight minutes of the second. When Greg Lansing’s team went on an 8-0 spurt to then cut the lead to two, the Shockers punched back with four straight points and five straight stops. And when the gap was again sliced to a single possession with under two minutes remaining, Marshall’s guys earned key trips to the free throw line and shut things down on the defensive end. The ultimate result: a 65-58 victory and a season sweep of the Missouri Valley’s second-best unit. Three nights later in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the story was much the same. Wichita State was again too deep, too physical, too consistent over a full 40 minutes, pounding Northern Iowa on the glass — they secured 46 percent of available offensive rebounds — and squashing potential threats to the lead before they could gain traction. The effect was both defeating and demoralizing for the Panthers: “They play every possession perfectly,” UNI sophomore Matt Bohannon said after the game. Again, ‘perfect’ was the prevailing word used to describe the Shockers. Those perfect possessions led to another perfect week, a three-game stretch that might be crucial in their quest for an even greater form of perfection this season.
As great as the Steve Fishers and Gregg Marshalls and Jim Crews of the world are — and they’re pretty darn great — several other O26 coaches have also achieved remarkable success so far in 2013-14, often with less to work with and more to prove. Let’s examine a few of those head coaches around the country who have stood out to this point despite leading lesser-known programs.
Tony Jasick has raised the bar at IPFW this season. (gomastodons.com)
Tony Jasick– IPFW. At 18-7, Jasick’s team has already tied IPFW’s highest win total since it joined the Division I ranks 13 years ago, vastly exceeding expectations along the way. The Mastadons were picked to finish sixth out of eight teams in the Summit League preseason poll, making their current 6-2 conference record — enough to be tied for first place — quite a surprise, especially considering that they’ve already beaten the next three top contenders. In its win against overwhelming league-favorite North Dakota State, IPFW went 20-of-21 from the free throw line and committed just 11 fouls en route to a double-figure victory. It took Dayton some last-second heroics at home to beat Jasick’s club, and after falling to Illinois by just two points in late November, Illini head coach John Groce said of the Mastadons: “I thought they were going to be the best execution team that we have played so far. And they were.” Only 35 years old and in just his third year, Jasick could very well lead his program to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance this season and is sure to become a hot coaching name in the near future.
Posted by Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) on February 6th, 2014
Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) is a national columnist for Rush The Court and spent way too much time on these articles.
With the calendar turned to February and the meat of conference play upon us, the most dominant and least effective teams are showing their colors against equal competition. And with the halfway point of conference season rapidly approaching for many – and already here for others – now is a good time to take stock of both teams that are undefeated in conference and those who have yet to win. Tuesday’s installment took a look at the less fortunate teams among us, ranked from least likely to most to not win a game in conference play. Today, we do the same, but with the 10 teams still undefeated in conference play.
Note:All statistics dutifully harvested from kenpom.com.
Syracuse (22-0, 9-0 Atlantic Coast Conference)
Jim Boeheim has done a masterful job managing his lineup. But will the grind of the ACC season catch up to the Orange? (Getty)
Odds: 1.8 percent chance to go undefeated
Most likely losses: Feb. 22 at Duke, 67 percent; March 1 at Virginia, 59 percent
Biggest strength: Top 10 offense; defensively, second in block rate and steal rate
Key player: Freshman point guard Tyler Ennis (12.1 points per game, 5.6 assists per game, 2.3 steals per game; plays more of his team’s minutes than any other power conference freshman)
Outlook: Syracuse’s chances of going undefeated are not equal to their chances of beating the teams on this list. (In fact, I’d take the Orange in each match-up, and I hope that the team most likely to go undefeated and this Syracuse squad end up facing off in the NCAA Tournament, because that would be one hell of a game.) But the Orange still have to go into Cameron Indoor Stadium to face a Duke team that took them to overtime in Syracuse in an instant classic this past weekend. They also have to travel to Virginia and former Big East rival Pittsburgh in the regular season, which are the three toughest away games on their entire schedule. Syracuse has played a grind-it-out slow tempo this season, its seventh straight in which its pace of play has slowed down, going from 27th in tempo in 2007-08 to 344th of 351 teams in 2013-14. That slow tempo lets coach Jim Boeheim play six to seven players regularly, and his starters have played tons of minutes, which could be a big problem as the season drags on or, heaven forbid, a core player gets hurt.
It’s been yet another exciting week in O26 basketball. Let’s check out this week’s most compelling storylines.
Are Indiana State’s NCAA Tournament hopes over?
Jake Odum and Indiana State are in big trouble.
The discussion surrounding the Sycamores’ at-large chances largely pointed toward one game. Could Indiana State take down undefeated Wichita State at home on February 5? A win and suddenly the Sycamores are in the bubble discussion. A loss and almost all hope is lost. That was the date everybody had circled on the calendar. And then Indiana State (16-5, 7-2 Missouri Valley Conference) went and lost to Southern Illinois on Wednesday, effectively ending any at-large hopes. Its RPI sits at #45 as of Friday and is sure to plummet now. The Sycamores’ case was precarious at best before the loss, with what looked like a resume-building win over Notre Dame in mid-November no longer carrying any cache. The Fighting Irish’s freefall has erased any shot at that as a quality win. The only other win against a potential NCAA Tournament team came in late December against Belmont, an Ohio Valley Conference squad that will need an automatic bid to make the Big Dance. It’s not even clear that a home win against Wichita State will be enough. It appears to be the Missouri Valley’s automatic bid or bust for Indiana State now.
What the heck is going on with Massachusetts?
The Minutemen were America’s first half darlings, sitting at 16-1 with wins over New Mexico, BYU, LSU and Providence. Now Massachusetts has lost two of its last three games, falling on the road to Richmond and Saint Bonaventure. UMass had been skating on thin ice before this recent stretch, beating Miami (Ohio), Saint Joseph’s, Saint Bonaventure and George Mason by only single digits. The latter required a miracle final minute to pull out a victory. Now it’s finally caught up with them. UMass is still a safe bet to make the NCAA Tournament with a strong RPI at #8, although that will surely drop when the next rankings are released Monday. After being tabbed the Atlantic 10 favorite entering conference play, the Minutemen now have to be considered third in the league’s pecking order behind Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth. The struggles start with Chaz Willams, a frontrunner for A-10 Player of the Year. In those two recent losses, the senior guard is just 5-of-21 from the field with 19 points. He averages 15.7 points per game. Big man Cady Lalanne, who averages 13.5 PPG himself, has just 21 points in those two defeats. The Minutemen need their two stars to return to form in order for Massachusetts to make any noise in the NCAA Tournament.
Devon Saddler and Delaware showed Wednesday that they can still win big short-handed. (AP)
If you were to examine Wednesday night’s effort at William & Mary in a vacuum, you might even think Delaware could thrive in the absence of Threatt and King-Davis. The Hens dispatched the second-place Tribe, 89-72, behind Davon Usher’s 28 points and Carl Baptiste’s career-high 23, along with team-wide 10-of-22 shooting from behind the arc. It was an impressive outcome, prompting Ross to label it “one of the most unbelievable performances” he’s been associated with as head coach. The bigger story, though, might have been Saddler — who recorded seven first-half assists in his interim point guard role — and Cazmon Hayes, whose 24 minutes were by far his most since early December. If Saddler can adapt to being both a scorer and distributor, and Hayes and forward Devonne Pinkard can be dependable contributors, Ross’ club is capable of winning more games like it did on Wednesday.
After missing the previous seven games for an unspecified violation of team rules, Delaware guard Devon Saddler returned Monday night in a difficult road meeting with North Dakota State that did not go well for the Blue Hens — they surrendered 1.23 points per possession, shot just 5-of-22 from three-point range, and lost by 19 points. “We were not sharp,” head coach Monte Ross commented after the game. Saddler, though, was, dropping in 24 efficient points off the bench and showing onlookers why he is one of the preeminent scorers in college basketball. It was a significant silver lining in an otherwise disappointing night for Delaware, the type of impressive return that could be a harbinger of good things to come in CAA play this season.
Devon Saddler should make Delaware real contenders in the CAA. (US Presswire)
But before we just assume that Saddler’s return automatically means all positive things for the Hens, it is important to note how the team performed during his absence. In those seven games, Ross’s up-tempo club won five of them and pushed both Villanova and Notre Dame to the brink in two close road losses by a combined nine points. The offense was arguably more efficient since before the personnel loss, never finishing below 80 points and receiving increased production from emerging scoring option — and verifiable sharpshooter — Kyle Anderson, who currently ranks first in the country in three-point percentage for players with at least 60 attempts, at 54 percent. Impact transfer Davon Usher, who was eligible immediately after coming over from Mississippi Valley State in the offseason, also shouldered a large amount of the scoring load with considerable success, finishing with at least 25 points in four of the contests without Saddler. Additionally, Delaware moved up a whopping 83 spots in KenPom during that time, from #162 to #79, making it second among CAA teams behind only ailing-but-resilient Drexel. Put simply, the Blue Hens were playing good basketball.
With Feast Week tipping off over the weekend, we’re outlining the roads ahead for prominent Pac-12 teams involved in neutral site events this week.
What They’ve Done So Far: USC opened its season with one if its toughest non-conference games, a road trip to Logan to face Utah State. Things didn’t go in head coach Andy Enfield‘s debut as the Aggies blitzed the Trojans from the start and got the 78-65 win. Since then, however, USC has won four in a row, including a 14-point victory against regional rival Cal State Fullerton. Junior guard Byron Wesley has shined the brightest in Enfield’s up-tempo offense, averaging 19.8 PPG and grabbing a cool 8.8 RPG.
Enfield And Wesley Are Off To A 4-1 Start In 2013-14 (Los Angeles Times)
First Round Preview: USC meets 4-0 Villanova in the first round Thursday morning. The Wildcats have not had an opportunity to get a signature win, but they did dispatch a good Towson squad, 78-44. Five days later, however, they struggled to pull away from a mediocre Delaware team and barely held on for a four-point win. They are led by junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston, who is averaging over 20 PPG. For the Cats to escape the tournament opener, defending the endless list of USC bigs will be key. If they are able to limit their looks inside, Nova should definitely win this one.
Before the Champions Classic we cautioned you not to read too much into the results no matter how they ended up. We stand by that statement, but we hope that you still tuned in because if you did not, you missed some fantastic November basketball. In the main event/nightcap, Duke superstar Jabari Parker played a sensational first half that led some real-time draft experts to strongly consider changing the order of their daily NBA Mock Drafts right there on the spot. Eventually Parker cooled off (partially aided by Kansas counterpart Andrew Wiggins taking the initiative to guard him), and in the end, it was Kansas that made the statement with a 94-83 win fueled by a 15-4 run to end the game. For a full analysis of the Parker vs. Wiggins duel, check out our postgame write-up here.
In the undercard game that also happened to involve the top two teams in this week’s national polls, Michigan State knocked off Kentucky 78-74 in a game that more than lived up to the hype. While Big Blue Nation will have a tough time dealing with the loss (what fan base ever appropriately deals with a loss?) they should be able to take the loss in stride. The Spartans played like the veteran team that they are while the Wildcats showed flashes of youthful head-scratching combined with signs of brilliance that will put them on the short list of favorites when March rolls around. If we have one issue for the Wildcats going forward it will be the play (and more specifically, the attitude) of the Harrison twins, who at times appeared to lose focus when things were not going their way. The back-breaking play for Kentucky was a late turnover by Andrew Harrison that gave Michigan State just enough cushion with a few minutes left to hang on the rest of the way. For a full analysis of the battle between #1 vs. #2, check out our postgrame write-up here.
The biggest regular season night in college basketball in some time had nearly every major media outlet’s attention on Tuesday, so we’ve parsed through some of the best columns about the two games to help you catch up on everything. TSN‘s Mike DeCourcy writes that Kentucky’s slew of talented but very young players needed this education at the hands of their more experienced Michigan State elders in order to become the team that everyone thinks that it can be. CBSSports.com‘s Gary Parrish argues that, after having watched the oustanding freshman talents of Parker, Wiggins and Randle on display Tuesday night, it’s OK to fall in love with all three of them. At ESPN.com, Andy Katz punctuated in writing what our eyes were already telling us — that this year’s freshman class (which honestly should also include Arizona’s Aaron Gordon) is special. Finally, SI.com‘s Luke Winn came away from the proceedings convinced that, despite all the truth and hype about the precocious freshman on display, Michigan State, with all its experience, talent and coaching, is the team to beat this season.
There actually was some news outside of Chicago’s double-header last night, and for Houston it was of the very good variety. Danrad “Chicken” Knowles, already in the running for the best nickname is college basketball, was cleared on Tuesday to play immediately for the Cougars. Knowles had missed the first two games of the season waiting for a decision from the NCAA clearinghouse, but the former top 75 recruit will be able to suit up for James Dickey’s team as soon as Thursday’s game against Texas-San Antonio. Knowles at 6’10″ will provide a much-needed inside presence for the team in a league that is extremely light in the frontcourt. If Houston is to make a push this season into the top half of the AAC, much of that rise may depend on the incoming Knowles.
On the flip side, Delaware star Devon Saddlerhas been suspended by his team for a month for an unspecified violation of team rules. The all-CAA guard was averaging 23.0 PPG in the Blue Hens’ first two contests this season, and is only 314 points from becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer. If he can make it back to the team by a target of Delaware’s December 16 game against North Dakota State, that would leave him a minimum of 23 games to capture the record. Given that his career scoring average of 16.3 PPG is well above the 13.7 PPG he would need take over the top spot, he should be on track to still get there. What’s less certain is how the 0-2 Blue Hens will do without their best player in the lineup. Six of the team’s next seven games — while Saddler is expected to be out — are on the road, and a couple of those, at Villanova and at Notre Dame, will be no walks in the park.
Mark Selig is the RTC correspondent for the Colonial Athletic Association. You can also find his musings online on Twitter @markrselig.
Since the last CAA game — a James Madison championship that its fans waited nearly two decades to see — the league has officially said goodbye to perennial powers George Mason (off to the Atlantic 10) and Old Dominion (now in Conference USA in a football-driven move), and hello to intriguing newcomer College of Charleston (formerly of the Southern Conference). Based on last year’s RPIs, the CAA won’t immediately suffer, but Mason — with a Final Four appearance last decade — is obviously a more high-profile program than Charleston. ODU is too. The swap is just the latest in the CAA’s geographical shift. The league is losing its Virginia members (VCU exited before last season) and seems to be trending south.
New Niagara coach Joe Mihalich is just one of several newcomers to an ever changing CAA. (AP)
The league also said goodbye to Mo Cassara, Hofstra’s hard-luck coach who took the job in tough circumstances (replacing Tim Welsh after a DUI) and was let go in equally difficult ones. His replacement? Longtime Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, who said he’ll have to donate all the purple wardrobe accumulated from 15 years with the Purple Eagles to JMU coach Matt Brady (ironically, Mihalich and Brady both have wives named Mary, and both have three sons, including a set of twins — with the same May 30 birthday!). Brady, meanwhile, parlayed his CAA title into a four-year contract extension, although the talks were a bit drawn out, nearly lingering until his previous contract expired. As for a new coach joining Mihalich in the league, second-year Charleston coach Doug Wojcik becomes every CAA reporter and copy editor’s worst nightmare. Wojcik (I’m already getting the hang of it), is no stranger to the CAA, having played with David Robinson at Navy in the 1980s.
The final goodbye from the CAA was to the city of Richmond — home of the league’s last 24 postseason tournaments. The league offices are still located in Richmond, but the CAA will host its annual playoff in Baltimore this year. Trying to establish Charm City as a sort of hub for CAA hoops, the conference held its media day at the Renaissance Baltimore, a swanky hotel overlooking the Inner Harbor. “Crab Cakes and basketball. That’s what we’re going to do here in Charm City,” Towson coach Pat Skerry, channeling a Wedding Crashers line, said during a lunchtime speech at media day.
#4 George Mason vs. #5Drexel, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. — If you were to tell me last March that Mason and Drexel would meet in the first round of the CAA tournament, I would have said, “Really? What happened? Did four teams become ineligible for the tournament while the Patriots and Dragons underperformed?” And the March 2012 version of me would have been strangely prescient. But this is a heavyweight bout in Round 1, and the winner could certainly take the whole fruit basket. The teams split two regular season matchups, with each road team winning. Mason blew a 20-point first-half lead in its loss, but for the most part, both games came down to the final eight minutes, when the teams traded leads. This one should also go to the wire —and I’ve got Mason barely holding on in a thrilling opener to the weekend.
Pick: George Mason 62, Drexel 61
#2 Delaware vs. #7 Hofstra, Saturday, 6 p.m. — Hofstra, in this writer’s opinion, is the only team of the seven incapable of winning the tournament. Which means that Delaware, which hasn’t reached the semifinals since 2003, should finally make the final four. The Hens have weapons all over the court, while Hofstra counts on the same few players to log big minutes and try to make something happen. There won’t be many blowouts this weekend, but this game has a chance to be over quickly if Delaware shoots the ball well in the first half. Hofstra’s best gameplan is to limit possessions, remain within striking distance, and catch some second-half breaks. The Pride can hang around, but won’t seriously threaten.
The MAAC conference tournament gave us another buzzer-beater last night. Saint Peter’s guard Desi Washington rushed down the court and nailed a trey to eliminate Fairfield 65-62 on Washington’s THIRD game-winning buzzer-beater against the Stags this season.
Clown, thy name is UCSB fan. Although players and coaches alike are expected to behave professionally, fans also have a responsibility to contain themselves. Incidents like last night’s approach by a rabid UCSB fan are dangerous for everyone involved.