College Basketball Nation: Atlantic-10
Dayton president Dan Curran, like many university presidents, has an impressive résumé.
"A sociologist by training, Dr. Curran spent 23 years in various administrative and faculty positions at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia," his extended biography on the university website reads. "He's a noted scholar in criminology, juvenile justice and social problems, with a deep interest in international issues."
In 2002, he received the Eternal Flame award, an international honor given for "exceptional contribution to the field of Holocaust education." He is a former Fulbright senior scholar with eight scholarly publications to his name, almost all of which have advanced the fight against social inequality.
At 11 p.m. on March 22, this man -- this hyper-successful baron of academia -- was crowd-surfing his way down Kiefaber Street in Dayton, Ohio. Thousands chanted his name: "Dan! Dan! Dan!" A couple of hours later, riot police would show up, fiberglass shields in tow, to put down the joyous rebellion.
What we saw this season: Only Dayton wasn't a Cinderella. The Flyers were, in fact, a solid but injury-bugged team in a surprisingly dynamic 2013-14 Atlantic 10 Conference -- one that housed two of the nation's 10 best defensive teams (Saint Louis, VCU), that saw George Washington and Saint Joe's rise to tournament prominence, that watched Derek Kellogg get UMass back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998, that had probably the best, or at least the most unlucky, 11-20 team in the country.
That team? George Mason. The Patriots had a pretty rough go in A-10 play: Including their season-ending A-10 tournament loss to Fordham, nine of George Mason's conference games were decided by two possessions or fewer, or in overtime. In one nine-game losing streak, the Patriots lost to Saint Joe's, UMass and Saint Louis by a combined 11 points.
That was a fair enough summary of the A-10 in general: You really never knew what to expect.
After a disappointing start to the nonconference slate, VCU fell off the national radar. But the Rams got better and better as the season wound along, their turnover-creation more and more potent, in time to finish 12-4 in the A-10. Saint Louis took the opposite tack. The Billikens were the league's steadily marching defensive monster -- they eventually earned the top-10 ranking their late coach Rick Majerus predicted they would -- until the final month of the season, when their defense softened just enough to expose the struggles on the offensive end. UMass also went the opposite direction: great (or maybe just better than expected) early, weak late.
In the end, it was Dayton that peaked in March. At their best, any of the A-10's top teams could have made a similar run. But the Flyers got right at the perfect time.
What we expect to see next season: One must be careful not to overrate a handful of single-elimination games in March. That is the gospel we preach every summer, even if we don't always live by it ourselves.
In other words: Dayton's Elite Eight run doesn't automatically make the Flyers the A-10 favorite next season. Vee Sanford and Devin Oliver, both seniors, are huge losses for the Flyers. But! Dyshawn Pierre and Jordan Sibert were the team's most dynamic players by the end of the season, and Archie Miller's deep roster was primarily composed of freshmen and sophomores. The Flyers could well compete for the A-10 title.
UMass looks solid moving forward, despite the loss of point guard Chaz Williams. Saint Joe's and George Washington likewise lose key seniors but have some reasonable hopes in coming seasons. Saint Louis looks destined to take a step back: The Billikens were all about their seniors and now are in that post-core rebuild-or-reload mode.
Meanwhile, here's a safe prediction: VCU will begin the season as the preseason favorite. The Rams lost a couple of old 2011 Final Four stalwarts (including Rob Brandenberg) to the sands of time, but Shaka Smart has everyone else (including Briante Weber and Treveon Graham) returning and his best recruiting class ever (including three top-100 prospects) on board. The Rams look like the deepest team in the A-10, which, given that high-pressure defensive style, is a terrifying thought indeed.
Four years ago, VCU had its mad dash deep into the tournament field. In 2014, the Rams bore the brunt of the upset, thanks to a last-second four-point play and a missed game winner in overtime. Meanwhile, Dayton -- which went 1-5 in January -- was one game away from the Final Four, with its president wafting atop a riot.
Such are the vagaries of March. Such was the state of the 2013-14 A-10. This might not be a "power" league, but it is almost always a lot of fun.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- After Louisville guard Russ Smith went 1-of-5 from the floor and turned the ball over five times against Saint Louis in the first half on Saturday, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino pulled him aside in the locker room at halftime.
“Russ, there’s a lot better coaches than me in the other locker room, but picture if I was in the other locker room,” Pitino told him. “Do you think I would even let you breathe any time down the court? Do you think I would let you breathe?”
“No, Coach,” Smith told Pitino . “You would double me, you would trap me.”
Smith, a senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., must have listened to Pitino’s advice because he played much better in the second half, leading the No. 4 seed Cardinals to a 66-51 rout of the fifth-seeded Billikens in a round-of-32 game in the Midwest Region of the NCAA tournament at Amway Center.
The Cardinals, the defending national champions, will meet the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 seed Wichita State and No. 8 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis on Friday.
Smith finished with 11 points and seven assists, and he didn’t try to force things against Saint Louis’ suffocating defense as much as he did in the first half.
“Russ Smith has grown so much as a basketball player,” Pitino said. “But he still has one thing left, and I tried to explain this to him at halftime. He has a very difficult time because he’s a distracted young man. His last lesson is to play like he did in the second half. He doesn’t understand the scouting of the other teams. He’s all Michael, all Kobe. He doesn't get it. So we're going to give him shock treatment on Monday."
Smith said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help the Cardinals move forward in the tournament.
“I agree with anything [Pitino] says,” Smith said. “He’s gotten me to the point of being an All-American. Everything he says is correct. I’m just playing to win. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”
Against Saint Louis, less from Smith turned out to be more in the second half. Pitino warned his team that Saint Louis’ slow pace and stingy defense would frustrate them.
“They watched the Pitt-Florida game, and I said, ‘Guys, that’s the exact game you’re going to be in. You’re going to have to be the prettiest team in an ugly game because that’s the way it’s going to be,'" Pitino said.
Pitino’s comments were prophetic because the Billikens and Cardinals slugged their way through a forgettable first half. Louisville shot 40.9 percent in the first half; Saint Louis shot 28.6 percent. The Billikens went 0-for-15 on 3-pointers in the game.
After taking a 25-16 lead over the Billikens at the half, the Cardinals couldn’t make anything at the start of the second. Louisville went nearly six minutes without making a field goal -- its only points came on a pair of free throws on a Saint Louis technical foul. But after the Billikens went ahead 29-27 on forward Rob Loe’s layup with 14:17 to go, Smith ended Louisville’s drought with a basket and then made two foul shots on the next trip for a 31-29 lead.
After Louisville forward Luke Hancock made 3-pointers on consecutive trips a few minutes later, the Cardinals finally seemed to be back in rhythm.
Maybe that’s why Smith was trying to force things so much early against Saint Louis. During Louisville’s run to a national championship last season, the Cardinals breezed through their region in reaching the Final Four. They beat North Carolina A&T by 31 points, Colorado State by 26, Oregon by 8 and Duke by 22.
Then Louisville won close games over Wichita State and Michigan to earn Pitino a second national championship.
“[This year] feels good,” Smith said. “Nothing is going to feel like last year. We were clobbering teams. Last year’s team is incomparable. The new guys are hungry, but this team is different. This is our first year playing together. Last year, we’d been playing together for three years. We all have new roles this year and there’s different chemistry. I feel good about our guys and where they are.”
After the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament, the defending national champions have as much of a chance as anyone else to win another title.
“Obviously, they’ve got a chance to repeat,” Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said. “They’re going to be in the final 16, so they’ve got a better chance than the other 314. [Their chances] are a lot better than us."
ORLANDO -- Florida hardly looked like the No. 1 overall seed Thursday night in its opening-round game of the NCAA tournament.
And Louisville didn’t look much better in its first NCAA tournament game in defense of its national championship.
Both will be looking for redemption when they play round-of-32 games Saturday, with another trip to the Sweet 16 on the line:
South Region: No. 1 seed Florida (33-2) vs. No. 9 seed Pittsburgh (26-9), 12:15 p.m. ET Saturday
The surging Panthers walloped No. 8 seed Colorado 77-48 Thursday.
“It was good enough to win, but is it good enough to play against a team like Pittsburgh? Probably not,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “But I’m proud of our guys because they found a way to win when they didn’t play their best. And you know what? They’ve always been really good at being able to learn valuable lessons in a lot of ways. So hopefully they’ll be able to come back and correct that and do a little bit better.”
The Gators will probably have to be much better against Pittsburgh, which is a lot bigger and more physical than the Great Danes. Albany, which had to win a first-round game against Mount St. Mary’s on Tuesday night to earn the trip to Orlando, trailed UF by only six points at the half and tied the score at 39 with about 14 minutes to play. The Gators finally pulled away with a 9-0 run in the final 10 minutes.
“I think in this tournament you have to be aware that every team is fighting for their life, and the goal is just to survive,” Gators center Patric Young said. “Moving forward, we have to make sure we do whatever it takes just to survive and every team is going to be trying to keep that same mindset of just moving on to the next round. Hopefully, we can keep it going, as well.”
Pittsburgh, which led Colorado by 28 points at the half and committed only three turnovers in the game, seems to be hitting its stride. The Panthers won 16 of their first 17 games this season, then dropped six of 10 after losing sixth man Durand Johnson to a season-ending knee injury.
Pittsburgh has played better lately, though, winning four of five, including an 80-75 victory over North Carolina in the ACC tournament.
Pitt was 1-7 against ranked opponents this season and is 2-15 all time against the country’s top-ranked team.
“I think we feel like we’re playing really good basketball,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “We think we’re playing our best. We played well in the ACC tournament. We didn’t win it, but we thought we were playing better and we played good the other day. I think all that matters is not so much the seed but how you feel like you’re playing and how you are playing.”
Midwest Region: No. 4 seed Louisville (30-5) vs. No. 5 seed Saint Louis (27-6), 2:45 p.m. ET Saturday
Louisville and Saint Louis were in even more trouble than Florida on Thursday night.
The Billikens trailed No. 12 seed NC State by 14 points with 5 minutes to go, and eight points with 90 seconds to go, but somehow won the game 83-80 in overtime.
Louisville and Saint Louis will meet on Saturday, with the winner advancing to next week’s Midwest Region semifinals in Indianapolis.
“We won the game, but any team in this tournament [can win],” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “Albany played Florida to the mat. Because of everybody leaving so early, that’s what makes March Madness so much fun. I think we’re a very good basketball team. I thought Manhattan was the better team [Thursday night] until 4 minutes to go in the game, and then we were the better team.”
Manhattan’s familiarity with Louisville -- Jaspers coach Steve Masiello played for Pitino at Kentucky and coached under him at Louisville -- made things more difficult for the Cardinals. Louisville missed 13 of its first 17 shots in the second half.
But Saint Louis and Louisville also are very similar. The Billikens have started five seniors in all but three games this season, and they’re built on defense. Saint Louis ranks eighth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 91.4 points per 100 possessions. Louisville, which starts three seniors, ranks sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency (90.6 points).
"It's like watching one of [SMU] coach Larry Brown's teams," Pitino said. "You weren't quite sure whether his team executed better on offense or defense, and that's indicative of Saint Louis and Jim [Crews]' teams. They execute at both ends of the floor in a terrific fashion. Obviously they've got seniors, and seniors execute very well, and they're very impressive."
One group of seniors will be together on the court for another chance Saturday.
“We’ve been the underdog pretty much my entire time at Saint Louis, so it’s nothing new,” Saint Louis forward Dwayne Evans said. “But to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and obviously Louisville won it last year. I think we have the team to do it."
ORLANDO, Fla. -- North Carolina State led No. 5 seed Saint Louis by 14 points with five minutes to play in regulation in Thursday night’s second-round game of the Midwest Region at Amway Center.
“We just didn’t want to give up,” Saint Louis forward Rob Loe said. “We didn’t want to end on that kind of note. We just wanted to keep playing.”
The No. 12-seeded Wolfpack led by eight points with 90 seconds to go and by six points with one minute left.
Somehow, the Billikens fought until the very end, erasing the aforementioned deficits in regulation in one of the most memorable comebacks in recent NCAA tournament history, and then pulling away from the Wolfpack for an 83-80 victory in overtime.
Saint Louis, which dropped four of its previous five games after winning 19 straight, including a 71-68 loss to St. Bonaventure in the A-10 tourney, advanced to play in Saturday’s third round, where it will meet the winner of Thursday night’s game between No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 13 seed Manhattan.
“I can’t salute these guys enough in terms of how they just stayed with it,” Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said. “I don’t know how many we were down late, but we were down plenty late. They just stayed with it. Obviously, our press gave us a little energy. We got a few buckets out of that, and that picked up things for us and we had guys making big plays down the stretch.”
Saint Louis fans won’t forget the Billikens’ comeback anytime soon, but they certainly had plenty of help in erasing NC State’s wide margin. After the Wolfpack took a 59-45 lead on ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren’s layup with 5:03 to play, NC State came apart at the seams. The Wolfpack missed 12 of 21 foul shots and had three turnovers in the final five minutes of regulation.
“Well, it’s heartbreaking,” NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. “Obviously, we’re going to always feel like we let one slip away.”
With the Wolfpack holding a 65-57 lead with about 1½ minutes left in regulation, Loe drained a 3-pointer and then Grandy Glaze stole the in-bounds pass and scored on a layup to cut NC State’s lead to 65-62 with 1:14 remaining. After NC State pulled back ahead 68-63 in the final minute of regulation, the Wolfpack missed two straight foul shots and then Saint Louis’ Jake Barnett made a long 3-pointer to make it 68-66 with 47.2 seconds left.
“We knew that we were right there, and coach has been saying all week, it doesn’t matter if you’re up 10 or down 10,” Barnett said. “Obviously, we were down a lot, but we kept fighting and kept battling. The thing that was cool is guys came in off the bench and made great plays. Everybody stepped up, made big shots, and we were just able to cash in down the stretch.”
Jett tied the score at 70-70 on a layup and was fouled by Warren with 18 seconds left, but he missed a free throw that would have ended the game in regulation.
“That’s probably the weirdest turn of events that I’ve ever been a part of,” Loe said.
In overtime, the Wolfpack trailed 81-80 when Warren missed a foul shot for a three-point play with 38 seconds left. Earlier in overtime, one of Warren’s foul shots was wiped out when he committed a lane violation.
The Wolfpack made only 20 of 37 foul shots in the game.
“It’s hard to explain,” Gottfried said. “We’re a good foul-shooting team. We’ve been a good foul-shooting team here recently, and it kind of steamrolled on us there from the foul line.”
Once the Billikens were rolling, NC State seemingly could only watch.
“It was definitely tough,” NC State guard Ralston Turner said. “At one point we had the lead and things were going our way. We had a 10-point lead and they started fouling. They just extended the game. We started missing a lot of free throws, and a lot of uncharacteristic things started happening.”
At this point, any team with a cat-related mascot and a couple of close games in their rearview gets slapped with the "Cardiac Cats" nickname. Pittsburgh actually earned it. All season, the Panthers have played close games. Its losses to good teams have been close, its wins over bad teams closer. And then there's the slow-burn bubble drama: On a per-possession basis, Pittsburgh should have wrapped up its NCAA tournament bid months ago. Instead, its lack of quality wins and a couple of home slugs down the stretch (to Florida State and NC State, respectively) put Pitt and its questionable nonconference schedule into legitimate bubble jeopardy.
Friday was another exercise in self-induced anxiety. Leading 50-31 with 11:43 to play, Pitt should have put North Carolina away with room to spare in the second half. Then, of course, the Panthers gradually let UNC close the lead, and when Talib Zanna -- who put together a brilliant 19-point, 21-rebound game -- fouled out with 1:03 left, and Marcus Paige's free throws cut the lead to four, things looked grim. But Pitt regrouped and survived, thanks to free throws and careful ballhandling down the stretch (and maybe one or two missed calls, which were legion in this game), and as such we can officially lock the Panthers into a tourney slot. Adding another noteworthy top-50 win was really all this team needed to do to make sure the committee didn't look askance at its unspectacular profile. Mission accomplished.
Meanwhile, over in the Atlantic 10 …
Alongside Providence-St. John's and La. Tech-Southern Miss, Friday's Saint Joseph's-Dayton clash in the A-10 quarterfinals was the best example the weekend had to offer of two bubble teams, both in need of wins, clashing in the conference tournament. The result was a thriller. Thanks to a Langston Galloway 3, Saint Joe's escaped victorious, and now the question is what it all means.
St. Joseph’s: Notching a win over a fellow bubble team on a neutral floor is the kind of thing that just might make the difference -- a tiny difference, but a difference -- between getting in the tournament and getting snubbed on Selection Sunday. The Hawks got what they needed Friday, thanks to Galloway's 31 points and a clutch 3 with 20 seconds to play in Friday's 70-67 win over the Flyers. It was the Hawks' third win over Dayton, which helps, because it looks like both teams are in a dead-heat on the cut line. The question is what might happen Saturday when the Hawks play St. Bonaventure. What should have been a crack at Saint Louis has suddenly turned into a bad-loss opportunity. Would St. Joe's take a hit if it lost? We're honestly not sure. But Friday's win was major regardless.
Dayton: On Friday morning, before broadcasting St. Joe's-Dayton -- he is a man of many talents, after all -- ESPN's own Joe Lunardi offered up his latest last four in update: St. Joe's, Dayton, BYU, Providence. That squared with our own reckoning starting the day, and it's not clear Dayton should be downgraded much along the cut line after the loss. The next four teams on Joe's S-Curve are Minnesota, FSU, Southern Miss, and Arkansas, followed by Cal, Missouri, St. John's, and Green Bay. Both in the short-term movement and overall resume sense -- FSU, Arkansas, Cal, and St. John's have all lost in the past 24 hours -- Dayton rates well against most of those teams. And again: what happens if St. Joe's loses to the Bonnies? Don't tear up your season programs just yet, Flyers fans. If anything, a #daytonindayton play-in game looks likelier than ever.
And let’s not leave out the Big Ten …
Illinois needed, at the very least, a win over Michigan on Friday (and then probably another against Ohio State on Saturday) to get anywhere near the bubble conversation, and the Illini gave it a real run. (And inspired the Watch's Illinois-based friends to send a flurry of second-half texts. Hey guys!) But Michigan held on to a 64-63 lead down the stretch, and the Illini's sudden long-shot hopes vanished just as quickly.
By our admittedly dim lights, Nebraska entered the day with a little space between itself and the cut line -- one of the last four byes, maybe higher. After the loss to Ohio State? It's hard to say. Résumé-wise, Nebraska has a solid-enough RPI (41) and an even better overall schedule (26), plus an 11-7 record in the Big Ten, which might count for something. The committee should see a good, hot team that knocked off Wisconsin five days ago, that outplayed Ohio State for much of Friday's game, that won at Michigan State in mid-February, and that finished the Big Ten season 8-2 over the final 10 games. But if the committee pays as much attention to the sweep vs. Penn State, or the neutral-court loss to UAB -- and if it doesn't like the sight of a good team crumbling under the postseason glare -- maybe Nebraska's case won't be cut and dry. We think they'll get in, but we're not positive about it.
Off in the SEC ...
Missouri: The Tigers played Florida to a draw in the first half and completely crumbled in the second; that's what happens when you let Texas A&M take your nonexistent defense to double-overtime a day before playing the best team in the country. Barring a major surprise, the Tigers' punishment will take the form of a Selection Sunday snub. Arkansas isn't in much better shape after Thursday's loss to South Carolina. In the end, it looks like the SEC is going to be a three-bid league. Finally, Tennessee finally has emerged as a willing third wheel.
Tennessee: No team in the country enjoyed a wider gap all season between what advanced metrics said about them -- that they were one of the best 15 or 20 teams in the country -- and what their wins and losses, and their resulting RPI, indicated. A lot of that had to do with an uncharacteristic-for-all-parties 30-point blowout of Virginia in late December, but still: Tennessee has been one of the nation's best offensive rebounding teams in the country with the returning SEC player of the year (Jordan McRae) roaming the perimeter. But losses to Vanderbilt, Missouri and Texas A&M in February put Cuonzo Martin's team on the bubble and kept it there since. But after avoiding a bad loss on Friday to South Carolina, the Vols are 20-11 overall with a top-15 strength of schedule number by their name and an all-upside matchup against Florida on deck for Saturday.
Check out full details on teams on the bubble here.
Conference realignment has come, team pillaging has gone, and the Atlantic 10 is still here and still fine, thank you very much.
Just a year ago, teams gathered in Brooklyn for what seemed like a swan song to real excellence, with Xavier, Temple, Butler and Charlotte on their way out the door.
Instead, the reorganized and recharged Atlantic 10 expects to get six of its 13 teams into the NCAA tournament field, a rather nice little percentage. How? Because exactly what needed to happen for the A-10 to remain relevant, did. Teams that had been stuck in the middle of the pack for years emerged this season as viable threats, replacing the ones that left for greener pastures.
Credit the schools for making good hires (Archie Miller at Dayton, Mike Lonergan at GW) and making a commitment to be basketball-centric, and credit the coaches for pushing the right buttons.
But mostly credit the conference for keeping its vision clear amid the chaos.
What’s at stake?
A shot at history for five teams -- VCU, St. Joe, GW, UMass and Dayton.
The last time one of those won the Atlantic 10 Tournament -- how about 2007?
VCU gets a pass. The Rams are in only their second season in the conference.
The rest, though, were once part of the conference backbone, league stalwarts that could be counted on for big results. Hard times and coaching changes have conspired to send all of them into reshuffling, if not flat-out rebuilding mode.
George Washington won the tourney in 2007 and again in 2005. Dayton’s drought stretches back to 2003. Saint Joseph’s, despite that magical 2004 season run, hasn’t won a postseason title since 1997, and UMass has to go all the way back to 1996 when a certain young coach by the name of Calipari led the Minutemen.
This isn’t about securing a bid, though no doubt the certainty of a relaxing Selection Sunday would be welcome.
With Saint Louis already claiming its second consecutive regular-season title, this is about lofting a trophy and legitimizing success.
Team with the most to gain
Dayton. If there is a team even slightly on the bubble, it’s the Flyers. More than likely the strong finish -- with wins against both UMass and Saint Louis -- solidified things for Dayton, but a few wins here wouldn’t hurt.
The Flyers have a solid RPI (40) and schedule (41), but no one wants to be sweating out upsets elsewhere. A longer stay in Brooklyn wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Of course, the ironic twist for Dayton is that being one of the last teams in could almost work in the Flyers’ favor. The First Four games again will be played on Dayton’s home court, and with no way to pick a new site on the fly, the selection committee has agreed to allow the Flyers to play there if they are in one of those early games.
Smart recently spoke with ESPN.com about VCU’s season, Selection Sunday and his Final Four team.
Smart: Well, I think we made some progress on the defensive end. We take more pride in some of the details that go into being a good defensive team. But I think the biggest difference between last time we played Saint Louis and this time we played Saint Louis was one was at home and one was there.
How much different are the two, the road and home, in a league like the Atlantic 10?
Smart: Well, I think in college basketball, it’s just a huge factor. I remember reading, last year, a quote by Buzz Williams that I actually used with my team. I thought it was really good. He says after Valentine’s Day, to win on the road, the only way to do it is to overwhelm the other team, and I think he gave a few examples of how you can do it. But if you don’t overwhelm the other team, just with the advantages that the home team has with energy and crowd and, sometimes, the officials his point was, you’re not winning on the road in your league that late in the year. I think that’s what you see playing out in our league and other leagues.
Your team faced some early struggles this season. How much of that was tied to the loss of veterans (Troy Daniels and Darius Theus both graduated)?
Smart: The biggest challenge was the toughest schedule we ever had, and that’s nonconference and conference combined, especially the road games we’ve played. If you look at the 11 road games in our regular season, I believe 10 of them are top-100 games and the majority of them are top 50 (RPI). Those are going to be challenges for anybody, and it just so happened in our league that we got the tough end of the stick in terms of who we had to go see on the road. In terms of our team and our guys, I think leadership is something that has continued to evolve, something we’ve gotten better at over the course of the year. We need to continue getting better at it. We lost our emotional leader off last year’s team. We lost three guys that were the most unselfish guys on our team. That’s been an adjustment, replacing those guys and the intangibles they’ve brought.
What do you want to see from your team in the days leading up to the NCAA tournament?
Smart: Well, really, with the risk of sounding overly simplistic, it’s just getting better. Obviously the teams that play the best basketball in the month of March, those are the teams that survive and advance. Those are the teams that can make runs. When we have had success in March, it’s because we’ve really gotten better in late February and early March. ... Now we just have to continue improving. We can’t lose sight of any of the details.
What’s the greatest intangible that your Final Four team possessed in 2011, and does this team have it?
Smart: Confidence was definitely the best intangible for those guys. It was odd because a lot of people didn’t think we even belonged in the tournament. We had a losing record in the month of February, but those guys never wavered in their belief and themselves and each other and our team. It was what allowed them to take the floor against a team like Kansas that had, I think, six pros and not bat an eye for a second. So does this team have that? I don’t think on the level that we did in 2011. We have some other things better than that team. I’d say if you add up our personnel, if you added the pieces together, this is probably better. Joey Rodriguez wouldn’t want to hear that. ... Going into the challenging games that we’ll have in March, we’re going to have to have a level of confidence against whoever we’re playing to be able to say we’re better than these guys and we can take them out.
Well, Wichita State stayed undefeated after securing a win over Northern Iowa, but most predicted that.
Larry Brown is in the national coach of the year conversation nearly 30 years after winning the national title with Kansas. That SMU win over Cincinnati was a major step for Brown’s program.
I was surprised by Iowa’s stand against Michigan. Memphis came from behind and then stayed strong late against a Gonzaga team that stopped playing defense in the last five minutes. Traevon Jackson hit a game winner for Wisconsin against Michigan State.
Just the typical mid-February chaos.
This weekend, however, is a bit more difficult to assess.
But I’ll do my best.
Last week: 4-1
VCU at No. 12 Saint Louis, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Remember VCU? Well, the Rams got lost on the national scene for a few reasons. They didn’t get off to the dazzling start many had anticipated with the talent that Shaka Smart brought back, including leading scorer Treveon Graham. The Rams still wreak havoc on defense (no team in America forces more turnovers per possession than VCU, according to Ken Pomeroy). But this is one of America’s most mysterious offensive groups. Smart’s squad has shot 41.3 percent from the field in conference play (11th in the league). The Rams have the Atlantic 10’s top scoring offense (77.3 PPG), but they’re 101st in adjusted offensive efficiency (according to Pomeroy). Saint Louis is much easier to figure out. Jim Crews’ squad has been flawless since a Dec. 1 home loss to 26-0 Wichita State. The Billikens are third in adjusted defensive efficiency. Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett are a potent pair on both ends of the floor, but they haven’t faced an offense like this.
Prediction: VCU 60, SLU 56
No. 3 Florida at No. 14 Kentucky, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: For weeks, Florida has looked like a bored team just itching to play an opponent that can truly give it a fight for 40 minutes. The Gators have won 16 in a row and are 7-2 against the BPI’s top 50. Since a December stretch that included a loss to Connecticut and wins over Memphis and Kansas, however, they’ve played only two teams in the BPI’s top 50 (Missouri and Tennessee) and zero in the top 25. Florida is playing as well as anyone in the country right now, but Billy Donovan’s program hasn’t been tested in a month. Literally. That’s not its fault. The SEC is bad. The Gators can’t control that, but this is a sharp turn from what it has dealt with in league play. Fighting on the road against a Kentucky team that has that next-level ability when it’s focused -- and I assume John Calipari’s team will be focused for a huge matchup -- will not be an easy affair. Plus, the Wildcats have the edge in offensive rebounding rate (43.2 percent to 37.5 percent) and free throw rate (54.8 percent to 45.5 percent), per ESPN Stats & Info. Turnover rate, however, will be more important. The last time Florida (24th in defensive turnover rate) played a young, athletic team with ballhandling challenges (Kentucky is 113th nationally in offensive turnover rate), Kansas left Gainesville. Fla., with a loss. Expect the same result in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday.
Prediction: Florida 87, Kentucky 84
No. 20 Memphis at No. 24 UConn, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: In the first meeting, DeAndre Daniels was a monster. He finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in UConn’s 83-73 win in Memphis. Shaq Goodwin scored 10 points (4-for-9) in that game. The rematch will once again focus on the two big men inside. Both programs field comparable backcourts. Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Lasan Kromah can play with any backcourt in the country, but Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon Jr. can, too. Any of the aforementioned guards could go big and carry his respective squad to the win, but Daniels and Goodwin could be the difference-makers. Will be the difference-makers. If Goodwin doesn’t match Daniels and contain him with stingy defense, then the veteran big man will have another huge night for UConn. But Goodwin learned from that game. He’s been fearless in recent weeks, the sign of a young player who recognizes his significance to Josh Pastner’s plans.
Prediction: Memphis 75, UConn 70
No. 6 Villanova at No. 18 Creighton, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1:
On Thursday night, the wonderful minds at ESPN Stats & Info distributed an email titled "A Complete Breakdown of Doug McDermott's Scoring (Through Feb. 13)" shortly after the national player of the year frontrunner -- and it’s not close right now -- scored 26 points (11-for-19) and hit a late 3-pointer in Creighton’s 68-63 win at Butler. That memo included stats like this one: "Doug McDermott has 2,824 career points, 15th all time in Division I history. He is averaging a career-high 25.3 points per game this season." By the end of this season, McDermott should be one of the 10 greatest scorers in Division I history. Think about that. But he wasn’t the guy who torched Villanova in the first game. Ethan Wragge was 9-for-14 from the 3-point line in a 96-68 win over Villanova last month. He’s a 49 percent shooter from beyond the arc, but he’s made eight of 22 since that breathtaking display, so maybe Creighton’s 21 conference record-setting 3s against Villanova last month were an anomaly. The problem is that Creighton (39 percent from the 3-point line) gets hot often and Villanova just hasn’t done a great job of defending against the Bluejays’ best weapon (Big East teams shooting 38 percent from the 3-point line against Villanova). Another loss for Jay Wright’s crew in Omaha, Neb.
Prediction: Creighton 77, Villanova 72
No. 21 Wisconsin at No. 15 Michigan, 1 p.m. ET, CBS: This is an interesting game for so many reasons. It’s a battle between a Michigan team that’s tied with Michigan State atop the Big Ten and a Wisconsin team that has to build momentum for a strong finish to keep Bo Ryan’s streak of top-four finishes in the league alive. In recent weeks, both teams have shown some of their flaws. Michigan is an offensive turbo-engine (No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy) that’s 18-2 when it registers a 105.0 offensive rating, according to ESPN Stats & Info. But, Big Ten player of the year candidate Nik Stauskas struggled during a recent 1-2 stretch for Michigan. Wisconsin has always been a stubborn defensive team, and the Badgers have gone from the 90s to the 40s in recent weeks in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. But they were No. 1 last season. Both teams are regaining their stride entering this game. Wisconsin, however, will stumble on the road.
Prediction: Michigan 64, Wisconsin 60
The deal wasn’t officially done then, so McGlade could only talk in hypotheticals, and even as the commissioner insisted it would all be just fine, it was hard not to think hers was merely pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.
Sans the Bulldogs and Musketeers, the A-10 looked to be left with VCU and a bunch of teams whose latest and greatest were at least a decade earlier.
And then on one Saturday night, George Washington routed Fordham to improve to 19-4, Saint Louis survived a buzzer-beater to beat La Salle and run its record to 22-2, Dayton beat St. Bonaventure in Olean and is now 16-8, and Saint Joseph’s upset VCU to go to 16-7.
And we haven’t discussed UMass, off on Saturday but sitting at 18-4.
The dean of A-10 coaches, Martelli has seen the conference through its inevitable ebbs and flows and he knows what people were saying and thinking when October rolled around.
He also knows what they’ll be saying come March.
"Nobody is going to want to see an Atlantic 10 name pulled in the first round of the NCAA tournament," he said.
The only way the Atlantic 10 was going to survive was if teams that kept promising and threatening to become relevant actually did it.
Like St. Joe’s, which had run together 10 years of empty promises.
It’s been a decade since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West worked their magic here, and nine of those years resulted in an NCAA drought.
A year ago, things looked good. The Hawks were picked to win the conference but instead finished a disappointing 18-14.
They stumbled out of the gate again this season, 9-4 through December, but now suddenly have won six of their past eight, including signature victories against UMass and now VCU.
St. Joe’s might still be on the bubble, but at least it’s finally on the right side of it.
"The thing with this league, when you go on the road especially, if you don’t play your best game or close to it, you’re not going to win," said VCU coach Shaka Smart, who watched his team take a good half to light a fire and create havoc, let alone HAVOC. "There’s more depth now."
Fair or unfair, the Atlantic 10 and the Big East are destined for a lifelong run of comparisons. Northeast-based, basketball centric, they are a mirror image of one another, one just has a little more name cache and a bigger TV contract.
It is hard to ignore the irony in the year one side-by-side. The Big East, the league that attracted the detractors, has two NCAA locks in Creighton and Villanova, and two big maybes in Providence and Xavier.
The picked apart carcass of the A-10? It could be looking at as many as five or six bids.
"A lot of sages were taking the train to New York [for the A-10 tournament], wondering what was going to happen to us," Martelli said.
No one is wondering anymore.
But the games also make less sense now, right?
Northwestern over Wisconsin? Texas in the hunt for the Big 12 title? Utah putting up a fight against No. 1 Arizona?
Anything can happen.
But I admit it was still a bit audacious -- maybe crazy -- to pick Florida State to upset Duke in Cameron Indoor last weekend. I guess I hadn’t realized that the Blue Devils had suddenly morphed into a serious national contender again. They’re rolling. Capable of beating any team in the ACC.
Let’s see if they can keep it up Saturday when they travel to Syracuse.
Last week: 4-1
No. 23 Oklahoma at No. 16 Iowa State, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN3.com: The Sooners (6-2 Big 12), along with Texas (5-2 Big 12), are one of the few teams in the stacked Big 12 that can catch Kansas and grab a sliver of the Big 12 title. Iowa State is just trying to stop a slide that has thrown it toward the bottom of the league. Possessing the worst scoring defense in the conference doesn’t help (78.7 points per game allowed), although a rough stretch (two games against Kansas in two weeks) contributed to Iowa State's stumbles. After Oklahoma (No. 2 scoring offense in the Big 12) and an upcoming road test against Oklahoma State, things should get easier in Ames. These two games, however, could extend the slide. This is the same Oklahoma team that beat the Cyclones in Norman, Okla., on Jan. 11 and has won five of its past six. One team rising, the other falling.
Prediction: Iowa State 83, Oklahoma 82
No. 17 Duke at No. 2 Syracuse, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: There were so many concerns about this Duke team after it lost to Clemson a few weeks ago. It has an impressive collection of playmakers, including a likely top-three pick named Jabari Parker who could be the antidote to Cuse’s zone. But its defense had been inconsistent. That was the past. Duke is a sturdier defensive unit now. Barely top-100 a few weeks ago, the Blue Devils (58.4 points per game allowed in their past five games, per ESPN Stats & Info) are ranked 60th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. But Cuse has been a juggernaut this season. The Orange have forced turnovers on 23.8 percent of their opponents’ possessions. And Tyler Ennis, Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair anchor one of the most talented units in the country. Cuse doesn’t always win pretty, but Jim Boeheim’s team continues to come out on top.
Prediction: Syracuse 68, Duke 66
No. 6 Kansas at No. 25 Texas, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: Rick Barnes might be the front-runner in the Big 12’s coach of the year conversation. And that’s one of the greatest reversals in the country. He entered the season on a seat that had gotten warmer after Texas missed the NCAA tournament last season. Now his Longhorns are just two games behind Kansas in the Big 12 race after winning seven in a row and 10 of their past 11. Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley have been a major part of the progress for a team that’s been successful on the offensive glass and defensively (21st in adjusted defensive efficiency, 17.6 block percentage per Ken Pomeroy). But they’re hosting a Kansas team that might be as dangerous as any group in America right now. Andrew Wiggins has averaged 24.3 points per game in KU’s past three contests, squashing doubts about his ability to be a more dominant presence. But leaving Austin with a victory will be tough.
Prediction: Kansas 87, Texas 84
No. 21 UMass at Saint Joseph’s, 6 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network: The Minutemen have had their struggles in recent weeks as the Atlantic 10 race has intensified. Derek Kellogg’s program has lost two of three (St. Bonaventure, Richmond). And it’s not difficult to see why. Chaz Williams, a strong conference player of the year contender, couldn’t find the rim in both losses. He went 5-for-21 in those games. He also committed eight combined turnovers. If Saint Joseph’s can limit Williams, a player who affects every aspect of Kellogg’s game plan, it will have a shot. The Hawks didn’t do that in a four-point loss to UMass on Jan. 8 (Williams scored 22, shot 5-for-10). They’ll lose again, however, if they fail to pressure UMass’ senior star.
Prediction: Saint Joseph’s 69, UMass 67
Virginia at No. 18 Pitt, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Virginia quietly has climbed the ACC standings. The Cavaliers are 7-1 and second behind Syracuse. Their only ACC loss came against Duke. They’re ranked third in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, and their seven conference wins have all been by 12 points or more. But Tony Bennett’s squad is still missing a true signature victory. Virginia will have a chance to change that when it faces Pitt, a team that’s coming off a 15-point loss to Duke earlier this week. Duke did a great job of limiting Lamar Patterson’s early touches and making sure that he didn’t have any easy looks. Patterson, No. 6 in Ken Pomeroy’s individual offensive ratings, went 4-for-14 in that game. Losing Durand Johnson to injury a few weeks ago changed Jamie Dixon’s offensive capabilities. That puts more pressure on Patterson, Cameron Wright and Talib Zanna. But they can handle it.
Prediction: Pitt 60, Virginia 57
Lonergan: Last year, we started four freshmen, [and then-junior] Isaiah Armwood. We were fairly young. We lost seven games down at the wire. They were all good teams. So I just felt like if we get half those wins, we’d have a winning record. I didn’t know we’d get off to this kind of start, that’s for sure. But we lacked an outside shooter, a guy that could score with the game on the line. [Indiana transfer] Maurice Creek kind of gave us that guy. And that opened some things up for some other guys. ... And our freshmen are now sophomores, they’ve gotten better. I really think it’s just the years of experience and one player who just addressed a bunch of our weaknesses.
ESPN: What else did Creek add to the program?
Lonergan: You look at a game like Maryland this year. We’re up 14 [points] with five minutes left. Fouled out Dez Wells. Coach [Mark] Turgeon got a technical, started pressing and we started falling apart. It kind of reminded me of last year. And Maryland came all the way back and tied it. So we call timeout, probably like 10 seconds left or whatever it was. Maurice said, "Give me the ball." He wanted the ball. And we didn’t have anybody that really wanted the ball or could really do anything last year at the end of the game, and he made a jump shot. It gave our team confidence that they had a teammate we could put the ball in his hands at the end of the game and he would make a shot. That just gave all our team confidence that, "Hey, we can win close games."
ESPN: I read that your mom (Maureen Lonergan, former coach and athletic director at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, Md., who died of breast cancer in 1995) was a successful prep coach in Maryland. How did she influence you?
Lonergan: My mom was actually a jock before it was sort of fashionable for women to be jocks. She was my coach when I was like 8, 9, 10 years old. She coached my boys' club basketball teams. ... My mom didn’t have a college degree or anything, so she always said she was ahead of her time. She could beat me in one-on-one until I was in eighth grade. She was really a good athlete. ... My mom was one of the reasons I got into coaching. There are a lot of coaches that had an impact on me, but my mom was my first coach. And that was kind of special that I was really close to her and she was a heck of a coach. My wife (Maggie Lonergan, former women’s basketball coach at Division III Catholic University in Washington, D.C.) is kind of a lot like my mom. She was a college coach. ... My family is all sports. We love basketball, probably too much.
ESPN: I’m just imagining you all at the kitchen table and there are diagrams and playbooks all over the place. Is that how it is?
Lonergan: We watch a lot of film. I’ve never told anybody this. Probably shouldn’t say it. At some games, I’ll have her text me. My wife, she’ll watch a game if it’s on TV. ... She watched our game [against St. Bonaventure on Saturday night] on the computer. I’ll give my phone to my assistant director of operations and I’ll tell him just to show it to me at halftime. And she’ll text me like late [Saturday] night. She said, go at No. 3, their point guard, and go at their big guy, they’re in foul trouble. Usually she’ll give me some pretty good advice. ... She definitely is a big part of it. My wife definitely helps me in a lot of ways. I don’t think [Mike Krzyzewski] is calling his wife or getting text messages at halftime. It definitely helps me. She could be the best coach in our house.
No entity has been more imperiled by conference realignment than the medium-profile, football-agnostic college hoops conference. A decade ago, Conference USA was home to Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati, Saint Louis, Marquette, DePaul, Charlotte and more. Now? Just slightly worse than the Ivy League and the MAC (subscription required).
The Atlantic 10’s situation has never been that drastic. Indeed, Bernadette McGlade’s conference is just a year removed from adding Butler and VCU, two recent Final Four teams, to its rolls. But when the basketball-only members of the Big East broke off and formed their own league last spring, Butler and Xavier followed. Temple had long since announced its new membership in the American.
Either Xavier or Temple won every A-10 regular-season title from 2007 to 2012 and, in the past six seasons, accounted for 12 of the league’s 21 NCAA tournament bids. Now both are gone. What, exactly, is the A-10 without them?
“Wide open” is one answer. “Completely bonkers” is another.
On Tuesday evening, the Atlantic-10 will kick off conference play with a remarkable statistic appended to its collective hide: No A-10 team will enter with a sub-.500 record. Schedule is a factor here, particularly for Duquesne (7-5), Fordham (7-6) and George Mason (7-7), but still: That’s where the A-10 is as league competition begins. That’s kind of bonkers!
It is a simplistic way to look at the conference, sure, but it reveals a larger truth: The Atlantic-10 has a lot of good basketball teams this season. Pomeroy rankings do a handy back-of-the-envelope snapshot job, and what Ken’s efficiency stats reveal is that Saint Louis (No. 21), UMass (No. 28) and VCU (No. 33) all hover among the nation’s best 30 or so teams, with SLU’s top-five defense setting it apart, if only slightly.
Then there’s Dayton (No. 42), which beat Gonzaga, Cal and Ole Miss; George Washington (No. 67) and its win over Creighton and losses to just Marquette and Kansas State; and Richmond (No. 74), which is 10-5 with two OT losses to Wake Forest and Ohio and an impressive performance at Florida worth considering. Even Saint Joseph’s (No. 82) at 9-4 has zero good wins but no indicting losses.
These are all pretty good teams. Many are conference title contenders. All boast top-100 adjusted efficiency ranks as of Tuesday, as do St. Bonaventure and 2013 Sweet Sixteen surprise La Salle. That is more than many leagues -- let alone those coming off a summer realignment exodus -- can claim.
Plus, the lower third of the league is better. Duquesne is the only sub-200 squad in the league right now, at No. 204. Fordham and the Dukes are not only much better than they were in years past, they both score the ball and don’t defend so they’re usually pretty fun, too. Rhode Island is light years better in its second season under Danny Hurley than it was two years ago and is improving by the month. George Mason is ... well, we’ll see.
But you get the point! The point is that, beginning Tuesday night, the Atlantic-10 will tip off league play in a conference that most, including yours truly, had discounted as Saint Louis, VCU, maybe UMass and no one else. Not only was that wrong, it was way off. There are better leagues than the A-10 this season, and probably more entertaining ones. None are deeper. Few will be quite so fascinating.