Back in early September I wrote about a dark horse team that people shouldn’t sleep on in the ACC. With a little over a week left in the regular season the Virginia Cavaliers are indeed in the top spot of the conference at 15-1 in position to win their first conference title since 1980. One big roadblock remains, a home tilt with the team just a half game behind them, Syracuse tomorrow night.
While it may be true the unbalanced schedule in the ACC may have helped the Cavaliers get to where they are. They have played Duke (road loss), Pittsburgh (home win), North Carolina (home win) and Syracuse tomorrow just once but have swept Florida State and every other conference opponent the scheduling computer spit out at them.
The Cavs non-conference losses aren’t bad, three-point losses to then #14 VCU and Green Bay which is looking better and better thanks to the Phoenix’s stellar season in the Horizon League. They do have losses at Wisconsin (where neither team reached 50 points) and a blowout loss at Tennessee but the win over SMU is a good one because of the Mustangs’ solid year in the American.
Offensively Virginia will not blow your doors off, averaging just under 66 points per game with guards Joe Harris (11.5) and Malcolm Brogdon (12.4) the only players in double figures. Those kind of numbers work out ok when you are 9th in the nation in field goal percentage defense at 38.6% and are the country’s top defensive team allowing just 55.3 points per game. When you play defense like that you will undoubtedly be in a lot of games, as evidenced by three of their five losses being by a combined 10 points.
With a win on Saturday the #1 seed in the ACC tournament will not be Duke, North Carolina or Syracuse. It will be the team I told you to keep an eye on back in September, the Virginia Cavaliers.
The Big West Tournament may be two weeks away but the top seed for the tournament will more than likely be decided tonight. UC-Santa Barbara and UC-Irvine face off at the Bren Events Center in Irvine. Both teams are 9-3 in the conference and with three games left after tonight, whoever comes out on top will have their foot on the top rung of the ladder as they reach for that brass ring.
The Gauchos of Santa Barbara hold the tiebreaker over the Anteaters by virtue of their convincing 20-point home win on Jan. 30. In that game Alan Williams had 26 points and 10 rebounds while Taran Brown added 16 points, six rebounds and four assists. UCSB shot 49% from the field while holding Irvine to 35.7%, far below their 47.5% season average. They also outrebounded UC-Irvine 41-33. In the loss Luke Nelson had 26 points and Chris McNealy had 10 with no other player scoring more than five.
The rematch also pits two of the best assist teams in the country. The Gauchos are ranked 16th and Irvine is even better dishing out 16.5 dimes per game good enough for 9th best.
For Irvine to come away with a win they will have to control the 6-8 280lb. Williams who 22.5 points has him ranked eighth in the country. The Anteaters do have someone to combat that size and power with 7-6 290lb. freshman Mamadou Ndiaye who had just four points in the first meeting between the teams.
March Madness may be a few weeks away but at least in the Big West things will begin to take shape tonight.
Believe it or not but Selection Sunday is less than three weeks away. Now is a good time to look at a team who could bust some brackets on the first weekend. This team from the Southland conference won 27 games last season before falling in the finals of the conference championship and this year they are 25-2 and a perfect 14-0 in the Southland conference, I’m talking about the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin.
Last year the Lumberjacks were 27-5 before falling to Northwestern State in the Southland finals and then falling to Stanford in the first round of the NIT by a point. The Southland conference tournament finals was an interesting dichotomy between the country’s #2 scoring offense of Northwestern State defeating the #1 scoring defense of Stephen F. Austin 68-66. While this year’s edition of the Lumberjacks isn’t putting up the gaudy 51.2 points allowed per game they let up last season, this year’s squad is still playing stingy defense ranking 22nd at 62.3 points per game. They have allowed 70 points or more five times all year (once in a loss) and just three since Nov. 26.
Another factor that has made the Lumberjacks so successful over the last year plus, to the tune of 52 wins since the beginning of 2012-13 is the fact that they share the ball. The 15.5 assists they dished out last season ranked them 24th in the country. This year they’ve even improved on that with 16 assists per contest, good enough for 14th nationwide.
The Lumberjacks haven’t lost since Nov. 23 when they fell at East Tennessee State (their other loss was at Texas) and currently have a 22-game winning streak. Offensively the team is led by five guys in double figures with no one else averaging over three points. Junior Jacob Parker leads the team with 15 points and 6.8 rebounds. The team’s three seniors; Desmond Haymon, Deshaunt Walker and Nikola Gajic tally 36.6 points of the team’s 75 points per game.
The country’s leading bracketologists currently have the Lumberjacks in the 13-14 seed range. With four regular-season games remaining if Stephen F. Austin runs the table to a NCAA bid they will be 31-2 and as hot as any team in the country. If you are looking for this year’s Florida Gulf Coast, give the defensive-minded Stephen F. Austin a look.
As conference tournaments quickly approach the Big Ten has once again beat up upon each other on their way to a conference championship. Teams 2-6 in the Big Ten are separated by just two games, but it is the team on top that may be a little unexpected to some, the Michigan Wolverines.
John Belein’s squad is coming off a trip to the national championship game lost National Player of the Year Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. The also had issues in the middle as sophomore center Mitch McGary had back issues and they were unsure how effective he would be.
Michigan State was thought to be the favorite in the conference with Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Wolverines also likely to contend. While a look at the standings shows that it has almost shaken out like that, except for one thing, the team at the top.
With just four games remaining on the Big Ten schedule it is Michigan that everyone is chasing. They are 19-7 overall and 11-3 in the Big Ten putting them a half-game ahead of Michigan State (22-6, 11-4) who they hold a season sweep over and a full two-game lead over third place Wisconsin (22-5, 9-5). With their remaining schedule of games against Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana it may be difficult for anyone to wrestle the top spot away from Michigan.
The team was only able to get eight games out of McGary due to his back issues but a trio of sophomores has stepped up for the maize and blue. Nik Stauskas has become the team’s leading scorer at 17 points per game and fellow guard Caris LeVert has taken advantage of his increased playing time averaging 13.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals per contest compared to the two points and one rebound he averaged last season. In the frontcourt Glenn Robinson III is averaging 13 points and four boards.
Despite the question marks coming into the season Michigan finds themselves in position for the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament and a potential top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This past Thursday I was able to attend the game between San Diego and Portland at the Jenny Craig Pavilion on the campus of the University of San Diego. I went into the game thinking I wanted to watch a particular player but came away impressed with both teams for very different reasons.
First, the particulars of the game, San Diego scored a come-from-behind 61-59 win. The Toreros fell behind early in the first half 21-10 before finishing on a 25-10 run for a four-point halftime lead. The home team shot 54% on the first half and had their bench outscore the Pilots 26-2 and it was a good thing because they only made seven field goals in the 2nd half despite getting into the bonus midway through the half.
I went into the game wanting to focus on San Diego guard Johnny Dee, the team’s leading scorer. For the most part, at least to me, Dee floated outside the three-point area without much movement otherwise. There was one San Diego guard that did catch my eye and that was 6’5 Duda Sanazde who was active both inside and outside creating matchup problems for the smaller Portland guards finishing with 15 points. I was also impressed with 6’10 Simi Fajemisin who was very active at both ends of the floor in short minutes. He finished with five points and four rebounds.
Team wise I came away more impressed with Portland offensively. The Pilots had a lot of movement both with the ball using quick passes and off the ball with a lot of slashing and cutting trying to get people open. The home team on the other hand seemed stagnant for the most part in the half court. There was not a lot of movement besides swinging the ball from side-to-side with very little off-the-ball movement.
During my trip to San Diego I was looking forward to seeing just one player and came away impressed with many unexpected things.
If Syracuse enters the ACC Tournament undefeated they will have earned it by doing something they are unaccustomed to, playing and winning on the road outside of the New York metropolitan area.
The Orange are a really good team but for years it has been almost a running joke how little Jim Boeheim likes to travel outside the NY area if he doesn’t have to. For example prior to last season from 2004-2012 Syracuse played a total of five true road games outside the state of NY during non-conference play. Last season they traveled to San Diego to take on San Diego State on the USS Midway and to Arkansas. This season aside from a trip to Maui in November the Orange didn’t leave NY until January 7th when they played at Virginia Tech.
The Big East was a good basketball conference but there weren’t many arenas you would consider tough environments to play in. In addition the travel was relatively easy geographically for the team and its fans. Now as a part of the ACC road trips are a little bit longer and more difficult for fans to travel. Add to that the fact that the ACC has a few more raucous barns; Duke’s Cameron Indoor where the Orange play on Feb. 22, the Dean Dome at North Carolina, Clemson’s Littlejohn Colesium, a familiar venue Pitt’s Petersen Events Center and Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena where Syracuse visits on March 1st and the Orange will be in unchartered waters in their new conference.
In a scheduling quirk Boeheim’s crew will play four of their last five on the road including three straight at Duke, Maryland and Virginia. Syracuse has a relatively young team but one of the all-time greats on the bench, it will be interesting to see how this team handles the growing target of being #1 and undefeated on the road in hostile environments the likes of which they rarely saw in the Big East.
A couple of teams in the Big 12 are coming together at the right time, and its not Kansas, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma or Iowa State. Kansas State and West Virginia are stringing together victories at the right time.
Since getting blown out by rival Kansas on Jan. 11 Bruce Weber’s Wildcats have gone 5-3 with two of the losses coming back-to-back on the road to Texas and Iowa State by a combined nine points. Among the five wins three of them came at home over ranked opponents, #25 Oklahoma and wins this week over #15 Texas in a 74-57 blowout and last night exacted revenge on #7 Kansas with an 85-82 OT win.
Over the eight-game span the Wildcats’ freshman Marcus Foster has scored at least 20 four times including averaging 27 in the wins over Texas and Kansas. Kansa State finds itself at 7-4 in the conference just a half a game behind Texas for second place.
When you think of a Bob Huggins coached team you think of a rugged physical squad. This version of the West Virginia Mountaineers is that but they are also good on offense averaging nearly 80 points a game, 30th in the country.
They started off conference play 1-2 but have won five of seven since falling to Kansas State in mid-January. The Mountaineers are in the midst of a four-game swing against ranked opponents. Thus far they have gone 2-1 with a loss to Kansas sandwiched around an OT win over Oklahoma and a convincing 102-77 drubbing of Iowa State Monday. The run finishes with a road game at Texas on Saturday night.
Guard Juwan Staten has stepped it up over the last seven games averaging almost 21 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game.
West Virginia currently sits at 7-5 in conference and with four of their six remaining games against Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa State the Mountaineers will have plenty of chances to climb even higher.
The Big 12 is one of the deeper if not the deepest conference in America and the recent play of Kansas State and West Virginia makes the upcoming Big 12 tournament must see TV.