Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.
Wichita State (23-0) at Indiana State (14-5) – 8:05 PM ET, Wednesday. This is probably the greatest remaining hurdle on Wichita State’s quest for an undefeated regular season. Now 23-0, the Shockers have just eight games left on their schedule, only three of which come against squads with a .500 or better record, and just one versus a team ranked within the KenPom top-100. That team is Indiana State, and that game is tonight at the Hulman Center.
Jake Odum and the Sycamores should give Wichita State a fight this time around. (Fernando Salazar/ The Wichita Eagle)
Greg Lansing’s group should be dialed in after regaining some much-need momentum over the weekend at Northern Iowa, using a big second half rally to end the Panthers’ 11-game home winning streak and return to the win column. The Sycamores suffered a dreadful 19-point drubbing at Southern Illinois just three days earlier to all but end their at-large hopes, a sobering reality that perhaps bled into Saturday’s contest early. It took an angry locker room message from the head coach before the team finally woke up, ripping off 12 straight points in the first four minutes of the second half, tying the game before the first media timeout and maintaining firm control until the final whistle. It was an impressive comeback, the kind of focused, resilient effort they will need for a full 40 minutes in order to beat Wichita State.
If you hit the town Friday night to enjoy a few beverages or catch up on Oscar-nominated flicks and you missed the Horizon League/MAAC double-header on ESPNU, allow us to catch you up on a couple storylines that emerged from two excellent basketball games.
Alec Brown and the Phoenix can play with anyone this season. (Courtesy: Green Bay Athletics)
Green Bay has tremendous potential. Green Bay withstood another monstrous dunk by Jerran Young to beat Wright State on Friday night and move to 4-0 in the Horizon League, marking its eighth straight win overall. Alec Brown and Keifer Sykes again led the charge for Brian Wardle’s club, combining for 42 points and controlling the game from start to finish, even as the Raiders made numerous mini-runs throughout the second half. Now 14-3 and with metric rankings that scream ‘dangerous mid-major’, it’s time to start asking the question: Just how high is the ceiling for the Phoenix? If the team’s recent play is any indication, the answer might be “really, really high” — as in, NCAA-Tournament-victory-or-victories high. For one, there probably isn’t another inside-out combination as productive and dynamic as Brown and Sykes at the mid-major level. Brown is a legitimate NBA prospect (scouts were in the building on Friday night) whose athletic, 7’1” frame and ability to shoot from the perimeter (50% from three) — when he’s not dominating the paint — make him unstoppable on most nights. Sykes, meanwhile, is a quick, explosive point guard whose skills as a distributor are surpassed only by his scoring prowess — he dropped a career-high 34 points against Milwaukee last week and had 32 against Wisconsin in November. The rest of the group — players like the athletic forward Greg Mays and rebounding/defensive maven Jordan Fouse — complete a Green Bay team well-rounded enough to sit 42nd overall in KenPom’s rankings, having already beaten ACC-contender Virginia and pushed Wisconsin to the wire earlier in the season. Sure, the Phoenix could go on to drop several Horizon contests, lose in the league tournament and miss the Big Dance altogether. But it’s just as easy to see this team winning the conference, embracing the role of disrespected underdog and pulling off an upset or two in March.
Conference play was in full swing this week, offering up numerous monster performances, several sizable comebacks and just plain excellent basketball games (see: Akron vs. Ohio on Sunday night… seriously, watch the replay). Let’s get to it with some weekly awards for top O26 performers.
O26 Team of the Week
Dwayne Evans and the Billikens are our O26 Team of the Week. (Robert Leifheit/USA TODAY Sports)
Saint Louis. With all due respect to UMass and VCU, last week showed why Saint Louis remains the team to beat in the A-10 until proven otherwise. The Billikens — with relatively little fanfare, despite jumping out to the school’s best start in 20 years — quietly tipped off conference play at Rhode Island on Tuesday night against a fast-improving Rams team fresh off an impressive win at LSU. It had all the makings of a trap game, with Saint Louis perhaps looking ahead to its looming clash against Dayton on Saturday. And sure enough, the Billikens almost fell into the trap; Dan Hurley’s group gave them all they could handle for a full 40 minutes. Trailing by a seemingly-insurmountable 11 points in the second half, the Rams mounted a 23-7 run to take a five-point lead with under nine to go, energizing the crowd and putting all the pressure on the occasionally-stagnant Saint Louis offense. It might have spelled trouble had Jordair Jett not been having the best offensive game of his career. But indeed he was, and the senior guard poured in 11 points in the game’s final nine minutes, knocking down a huge three and several key free throws to give the Billikens the one-point edge with a few ticks remaining before coming up with the game-clinching steal in the final moment. In all, the eventual conference player of the week finished with a career high 31 points and led his team to a 59-58 victory.
It was Saturday’s tilt with Dayton that was tabbed as a potential loss, with the offensively-proficient Flyers coming in as slight favorites at home according to KenPom. Saint Louis was having none of that, though. The Billikens took the lead midway through the first half and never let go, playing vintage, suffocating defense and finding enough patient looks offensively to coast to a 67-59 victory. It was the type of game we’ve seen so many times from this team: The opponent, ostensibly within reach, scraps and claws until it becomes clear that the Saint Louis defense simply will not let up — each player in position, rotating to their spots, aggressively defending the three point line — and a comeback is completely hopeless. Dwayne Evans led the charge offensively with a crisp 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Now 15-2 (2-0 A-10), the Billikens are ranked second overall in defensive efficiency, have crept into the AP Top 25 and again look well-equipped to make a run at the conference title, and perhaps more, by season’s end.
In Ken Pomeroy’s recently-published conference race simulations, Manhattan wins the MAAC 6,161 times out of 10,000 simulations, which — in an 11-team league— makes it the overwhelming favorite. And for good reason. Despite being picked first in the conference preseason poll, the Jaspers have actually managed to exceed expectations in the first two months, using an aggressive defense and attack-first offense to notch several impressive road victories and an early 4-0 record in league play. So while fellow contenders like Iona, Canisius and Quinnipiac are likely to make the automatic bid far from a guarantee, Manhattan has already shown its potential as the most complete and dangerous upset threat from this league come March.
George Beamon and the Jaspers could be a tough NCAA Tournament match-up. (MAACSports)
Iona has been the cream of this conference for the past two years, making the NCAA Tournament twice — including as an at-large bid in 2011-12, the second ever out of the MAAC — and doing so with exceptional offense. Tim Cluess’ up-tempo, free-flowing attack has yielded three straight top-30 finishes nationally in offensive efficiency and over 20 wins in each of those seasons. Their problem has often been on the other end of the court, as Cluess’ teams sometimes making a habit of playing porous defense for long stretches that the scoring cannot always overcome. Likewise, Saint Peter’s, the conference tournament champion in 2011, was one of the best defensive teams the league has ever seen (finishing fifth in the country in defensive efficiency), but it could not generate the offense necessary to become a threat in the Big Dance. Put simply, the NCAA Tournament’s MAAC representative has lacked balance in recent years.
This Rutgers/Julie Hermann thing appears to be getting worse before it gets better. A couple bits of news released on Wednesday further impugned the university’s protocols for not properly vetting its new athletic director, and depending on how much more is still locked in the closet of this woman’s past, it could begin to spell the end of her short career there. ESPN.com obtained emails from the 26-member (seriously?) executive search committee at Rutgers that was tasked with interviewing candidates, including Hermann, and has found that the process was expedited to the point that committee members did not have time to “delve deeply into either candidates’ documents” or “ask follow-up questions.” Furthermore, a former Tennessee volleyball player named Erin Zammett Ruddy, who played under Hermann in 1996-97, validated the accusations made by some of her teammates in last weekend’s Newark Star-Ledger piece. As she writes on her personal blog, “After our 96/97 season, the team got together—sans coaches—to figure out why we were all so miserable and why we felt so much animosity toward one another. We quickly realized Julie [Hermann] was the common denominator.” She goes on to say that events from 16 years ago do not necessarily reflect the talents of Hermann as an administrator, but we’re starting to get the feeling that those feeling the most fire from this storm on high in New Jersey will not come to the same conclusion.
On to better news, as the positive effects from Jason Collins’ coming out are starting to take hold with college basketball the first beneficiary. Outsports reported Tuesday that an NAIA player by the name of Jallen Messersmith at Benedictine College (KS) had also come out to his coaches and teammates last fall, and is believed to be the first openly gay men’s college basketball player in US history. A rising junior, Messersmith is a 6’8″ forward who averaged 4.9 PPG and 3.6 RPG last season but was ranked in the top five nationally in blocks per game (1.9 BPG). There are many more firsts to achieve in this particular civil rights movement, but the more exposure to gay people that folks like Messersmith can bring to places like Atchison, Kansas, the better. As he put it so well: “I’m just one of the guys, who happens to like guys.”
In a strange coincidence, there was actually quite a bit of conference tournament news released on Wednesday. First, if the SEC is indeed interested in moving its postseason tournament to a “primary” site in the future, Nashville has spoken up and is more than ready to take on the responsibility. The Music City already has the 2015, 2016 and 2019 tournaments locked up, but the CEO of the Nashville Sports Council believes that his city is well-suited for the event. Meanwhile, in the mid-major world of conference tournaments, the MAAC announced on Wednesday that it is moving its postseason event back to Albany, New York, from Springfield, Massachusetts, beginning in 2015 and lasting through 2017. The event enjoyed its best attendance year in 2010 at Albany’s Times-Union Center, where the total gate of 53,569 was nearly four times the average attendance in Springfield the last two years. Staying in the Northeast, the Patriot League also announced that with the additions of Boston University and Loyola (MD) to the conference, the postseason tournament would also be expanding to include all 10 teams in its membership.
Today’s exercise in silliness comes from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in yet another exhibit of eggheadedness getting the best of reasonableness. A group called Emory Sports Marketing Analytics decided to come up with a statistical model to rank order the “best fan bases” in college basketball by comparing team revenues with expectations of team performance. Louisville came out on top, with Arizona, Duke, Arkansas (?) and North Carolina following in the top five. Kentucky came in at #7, while Kansas, UCLA, Indiana, among others, were not listed. We’ll have more on this later today, but the problem with an analysis like this is that the metric simply doesn’t determine much of anything having to do with the quality of a fan base. For example, Louisville’s significant revenue stream has much to do with its exceptional lease deal with the Yum! Center, and little to do with the quality of its fan base (even though it is obviously very good). Mike DeCourcy agrees, as should anyone with half a brain who watches and enjoys this sport. The fact of the matter is that for something so ambiguous and difficult to define as “best fan base,” you simply cannot rely entirely on quantitative methods to get realistic answers. A holistic, qualitative component simply must be part of the methodology. To its credit, Louisville blog Card Chronicle went with the “hey, it’s a ridiculous premise, so let’s mock Kentucky fans” opportunity. Well played, sirs.
Let’s end today with a discussion of Indiana‘s undefeated 1975-76 national championship team. The last team to run the table in college basketball history is now putting its cachet together for the purpose of the greater good — stars Kent Benson and Bobby Wilkerson will release a commemorative line of products to celebrate the team’s enduring greatness, which will go on sale at their 32and0 site today. All proceeds will be split among four Indiana charities, the Hoosier Oncology Group, Komen Central Indiana, Macon Mentor Academy and Help Indiana Vets. Fans will be able to purchase home and road jerseys (with player names!), DVDs, and other memorabilia. We might just look into getting a sweet road Scott May jersey if we find some dollars hidden in the couch.
As we move through Championship Week (the second half of Championship Fortnight, of course), we’ll continue to bring you these short reviews of each of the automatic qualifiers to help you fill out your bracket next week. In this post, we’ve got the MVC, MAAC, and CAA champions ready to go…
The Bluejays Celebrate Their First MVC Title Since 2007 (Omaha W-H/M. Miller)
Missouri Valley Champion (28-5, 17-4)
RPI/Pomeroy/Sagarin = #21/#35/#24
Adjusted Scoring Margin = +10.5
Likely NCAA Seed: #5-#7
Three Bruce Pearls of Wisdom.
With Creighton’s MVC Tournament victory over Illinois State on Sunday, the Bluejays sit at 28 wins and are just one win away from tying the most in its history. Given that Greg McDermott’s team has one of the best players in the country along with a talented and experienced group of complementary players, it’s not inconceivable that the school could reach 30 wins to break the record. Should Creighton advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1974, it would represent the culmination of a year that CU fans, some of the best in college basketball, have dreamed of for some time. This team is capable of getting there.
The primary reason they’re capable has a lot to do with the scoring wunderkind known as the coach’s son, Doug McDermott. The sophomore wing can quite literally score from anywhere on the court — his 23.2 PPG includes a ridiculously efficient 61.2% field goal percentage (49.5% from three) and he has an array of moves by which he finds open looks all over the floor. The offense quite clearly runs through him, but his supporting cast of guard Antoine Young (12.5 PPG, 4.5 APG) and Gregory Echinique (9.8 PPG, 7.4 RPG) provide additional punch when needed.
The problem for Creighton lies with its defense. Contrasted with an elite offensive unit (#5 nationally), the defense is downright ugly (#186 nationally). Creighton could arguably end up with the biggest disparity between the two ends of the court in the entire tournament field, excluding a crazy #16 seed perhaps. This means that matchups for the Bluejays are exceptionally important because they will only win by outscoring another team, not by stopping them. Ideally, Creighton would find itself in a first game matchup against an equally bad defensive power conference team such as Northwestern or Mississippi State. Getting past that one, they’d then face a team like Florida or even Duke to give themselves a fighting chance to get into a gunner’s delight showcase with the other team. If Creighton, however, sees a team like Wisconsin or Georgetown up ahead, they’re going to have trouble breaking through for that elusive 30th win.
Last Night’s Lede – Not a single power conference team played on Monday night and there were only 12 total games played, yet it ended up being one of the best nights of the entire season. Why’s that? Because it was the first full night of Championship Week, in which all games taking place from here on out will come during postseason tournaments. Monday saw four conference tournament finals take place – two at 7:00 PM ET, two at 9:00 PM ET – on ESPN or ESPN2, and each game came down to the final possession. The four championships were decided by 13 total points and included three overtime sessions. There was also important action taking place in other mid-major tournaments, so let’s jump right into it…
Your Watercooler Moment – VCU Returns to the Tournament
Brad Burgess and VCU Shot Their Way Back to the Big Dance (Washington Examiner/L. Alvarez)
Last year’s unbelievable Cinderella story has guaranteed itself a place in the Big Dance once again this year. Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams were squarely on the bubble heading into Monday night’s CAA Tournament final, as was their opponent, Drexel. A hard-fought game in which VCU led by double-digits for much of the game wound up being close at the end and came down to the final possession when Drexel guard Frantz Massenat’s three for the tie hit the back iron. VCU earned itself an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and there’s not a single team in the bracket that wants to face Shaka Smart’s team in the first game next week. The Rams got 16 points, five assists, four rebounds, and five steals from Darius Theus while their star Brad Burgess had just six points. Drexel, which had just eight assists compared to 18 turnovers, now must sweat it out on Selection Sunday with a very strong conference showing but some weak overall profile numbers such as the #226 strength of schedule that won’t be pleasing to the NCAA Tourney committee. Don’t be shocked, though, if Drexel ends up making it so that you’ll see both of these teams playing again next week.
Now that we’ve spent the last six weeks reviewing most of the Division I conferences, let’s take a look back at the entire list with the summer #1 power ranking for each as we head into the fall… [ed note: to see all of the Summer Updates in order of release, click here]
Game #171. Another team will punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament tonight as the MAAC Championship will be decided between the talented Iona Gaels and upstart St. Peter’s Peacocks.
Many expected Iona to advance to championship game on Monday evening, but their road to the NCAA Tournament figured to run through a different team. The Gaels boast two of the better players in the MAAC this year with Scott Machado running the point and junior college transfer Michael Glover throwing bodies around in the paint. As for their opposition in tonight’s game, it is not the Fairfield Stags nor is it the Rider Broncs. Believe it or not, the Peacocks from St. Peter’s have gotten hot at just the right time and have put themselves in a position to go dancing for the first time since 1995. St. Peter’s shocked Fairfield in the semifinals as they got out to a 40-15 halftime advantage and, while the Stags would make a great run in the second half, St. Peter’s used a tough zone defense to stymie the run. While Iona will unquestionably be the favorite in tonight’s game, head coach Jeff Dune has St. Peter’s believing they can win the MAAC title. Belief, more than anything in March, is what makes a team so dangerous. Join RTC Live this evening from Bridgeport, CT, as St. Peter’s looks to upset Iona for the right to represent the MAAC in the NCAA Tournament.
RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences.
As we near the weekend, more of the higher profile Other 26 conferences are beginning their postseason tournaments. In the east, the CAA, MAAC, and Southern Conference all get going with matinee affairs between Georgia State and UNC-Wilmington in the CAA and UNC-Greensboro and Davidson in the SoCon. Out west, the West Coast Conference kicks off their first round in what looks to be a very competitive tournament with St. Mary’s recent struggles and the resurgence of Gonzaga.
Colonial Athletic Association
The Favorite: Behind Cam Long and Ryan Pearson, George Mason has dominated the CAA and is the clear favorite to win the league. Old Dominion will be a tough challenger for the Patriots though.
Dark Horse: There have been many instances throughout the year that Virginia Commonwealth looks to be just as good as George Mason, but ending the year losing four straight games in the CAA will not instill confidence in many people. The Rams’ ability and talent is clearly there, and if they can string some wins together they can win the CAA championship.
Who’s Hot: George Mason winning 14 straight CAA games makes them easily the hottest CAA team.
Player to Watch: One of the most decorated players in Hofstra basketball history, Charles Jenkins is the best player to don a CAA uniform this year. The senior from Queens, NY is averaging 23.2 points per game.
First-Round Upset: William & Mary over James Madison. After having a very successful 2009-10 season, the Tribe has largely struggled this year, but is entering the CAA tournament having win two of three games. They have also split the season series with JMU this season winning the last game 73-67 and losing the first one 84-79.
How’d They Fare?Old Dominion, as a #11 seed, defeated Notre Dame 51-50 and then fell to Baylor in the second round.
Interesting Fact: The last time the CAA sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament was in 2007 when Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion went; it appears as if the CAA will be a multi-bid conference this year.
RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences.
Three more conferences get underway this evening with teams in the America East and NEC all gunning for the coveted automatic-bid to the Tournament, while the Missouri Valley is vying to send two teams to the Dance. Boston University is all of a sudden the favorite to win the America East with the uncertainty of Evan Fjeld‘s ankle, while Missouri State and Long Island are the favorites in their respective leagues. Something tells me though that the Wichita State Shockers will be looking for vengeance following their two losses to the Bears earlier this year.
The Favorite: Vermont appears to be the favorite, but a lot depends on the status of Evan Fjeld’s ankle that he injured in UVM’s final regular season game against Boston University. In what very well could be the America East championship game, BU went on to defeat the Catamounts in overtime. Allison Shepherd told John Fantino of the Burlington Free Press Blog that: “[Fjeld] is receiving daily care and treatment for the injury. We will have a better idea regarding his playing status for the upcoming America East tournament as the weekend approaches.” Something tells me that even if Fjeld and his ‘Stache are able to go, he will not be at 100%. I like Boston University.
Dark Horse: Behind senior Tim Ambrose, Albany is a team that has come on strong as of late and is capable of making a run in the A-East tournament. The Great Danes have won four straight to end the regular season, but getting by Stony Brook will be no easy task in the first round.
Who’s Hot: Boston University has not lost in February and is 8-0 during the month. They defeated Vermont to conclude the regular season and are flying high with John Holland—arguably the league’s best player—leading the way.
Player to Watch: John Holland has been a staple in BU’s rotation since the day he stepped on campus. The senior has averaged double-figures in scoring for all four years, and his 19.2 points a game this year is tops in the league.
First-Round Upset: Hartford over Maine. The Black Bears were an intriguing team and story to follow early on in the season. They beat a solid Penn State team and began league play with an 8-1 record, but since then they have fallen flat on their faces. Although their date with Hartford is technically not in the first round—the America East essentially has a play-in game between the #8 and #9 seeds to begin the tournament—fourth seeded Maine will have their hands full with Hartford who has already beaten them twice.
How’d They Fare? As a 16 seed last year, Vermont could not handle the athleticism or shooting ability of Syracuse as they lost 79-56.
Interesting Fact: Not an interesting fact, but simply one of my favorite NCAA Tournament highlights of all-time:
Easily the best part of the clip is Tom Brennan’s reaction after T.J. Sorrentine swishes home the three from about 35 feet away, and if you look even further past Brennan the reaction of the guys sitting on press row are priceless too. This is what makes March so Mad!
The Lede. Wednesday nights are always chock full of action from coast to coast, and there was no shortage of storylines across the hoops landscape this evening. From Kemba blowing up to Tai’s rim-rattler to Jenkins’ late explosion to celebrating the first conference champions, it’s all here tonight. Let’s jump right in…
Kemba Felt Great Tonight, As Did UConn Fans (H-C/J. Wolke)
Your Watercooler Moment. The Kemba-ssance. Tonight you witnessed the reason why UConn should be a darkhorse pick to go to the Final Four. This was the Kemba Walker who slashed, dashed, shot and fought his way to the Maui Invitational title three months ago. This was the player who literally picked his team up, placed it squarely on his back, and carried it to bucket after bucket down the stretch using any means possible. Such as… finding himself stuck in a spot 18 feet from the basket and nobody to pass to nor a decent look to shoot. Instead, using the self-assist method, he simply rifled a pass to himself off the backboard, caught it, and laid it in the hole. We’ve all tried this play in pickup ball, but you rarely see it in games outside of the And-1 Mixtape Tour because it’s simply too risky. Nevertheless, Walker successfully executed the play, and several others with a high degree of difficulty, which reminds us all that when this player finds a groove, there’s nobody tougher in the country to contain off the bounce. His 31/7/10 asst night on 13-23 shooting was his best all-around performance since before Christmas, and it makes us wonder if he’s found the lifeblood that made him so spectacular in November and December. Even if Kemba plays well, the Huskies still need the others to step up consistently — players such as Alex Oriakhi (10/8) or the suddenly effective Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (23/6); but he sure can erase a whole bunch of mistakes, can’t he? A quick note on Georgetown: the Hoyas’ eight-game winning streak came to an end tonight, but it wasn’t going to go on forever. They’re still in good position to finish strong and get a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That Backboard Thing. Tai Wesley Shatters Glass at Halftime. It’s a shame that it wasn’t during the game, but USU’s Tai Wesley broke the backboard during halftime warmups this evening in a worthless game against NAIA team Montana-Western. Luckily nobody was hurt, but arena officials managed to break a second one while trying to replace the first, resulting in a 45-minute delay of the game. With breakaway rims and triple-reinforced stanchions, you hardly see these sorts of things at the D1 level anymore; still, we kinda wish it had happened during the game!
Tai Wesley, USU Halftime Legend (AP/J. Urquhart)
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
Illinois, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Memphis & Duquesne. All four of these teams either on or near the bubble with 24 days left until Selection Sunday helped themselves this evening. The Illini are clearly the safest of the three (#7 seed in our latest RTC bracketology), but Bruce Weber’s team came into tonight having lost six of nine and really couldn’t stand another loss to a mediocre team like Michigan. Tennessee is relatively safe (#8 seed), but the Vols needed a win in a big way after three Ls in a row. You never know what to expect with this UT team, so even a simple home win over South Carolina shouldn’t be taken for granted. Cincinnati and Memphis, on the other hand, are legitimately on the cut line (#12 seeds) and although the Tigers have never appeared to be an NCAA quality team this season, they’ve done just well enough to remain in the discussion. Beating second-place UAB tonight to take over the top spot in Conference USA both amazes us and scares us at the same time. Conversely, Cincy has at times appeared to be a decent candidate for an NCAA bid, but having lost three of four coming into tonight, the Bearcats really needed a nice win over a ranked team for its resume. Mick Cronin’s team got that win over old rival Louisville tonight. Duquesne is on the outside looking in in our latest bracket, but with a solid win tonight at UMass the Dukes got off a two-game schneid and are now 9-2 in the Atlantic 10 with a chance to make a strong finish.