College Basketball Nation: CAA

CAA team previews

October, 18, 2013
10/18/13
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From Sept. 30 through Oct. 25, Insider will be rolling out its college basketball preview, including breakdowns on every Division I team, projected order of finish for every conference and essays from Insider’s hoops experts.

Here are previews for each team in the Colonial Athletic Association:

Charleston Cougars Insider
Delaware Fightin Blue Hens Insider
Drexel Dragons Insider
Hofstra Pride Insider
James Madison Dukes Insider
North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks Insider
Northeastern Huskies Insider
Towson Tigers Insider
William & Mary Tribe (free)

You Gotta See This: CAA

October, 18, 2013
10/18/13
10:00
AM ET
Jerrelle BenimonHoward Smith/USA TODAY SportsTowson will bring back Jerrelle Benimon as it looks for a run to the NCAA tournament.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Towson, the little rocket ship that could.

Two seasons ago, I wrote a column called Bottom 10. It was a weekly file firmly dedicated to poking light, polite fun at college hoops' most bemusedly bad teams (or performances, or games, or whatever). There was never a shortage of material, as you can imagine, but there were a few teams so historically bad they became weekly fixtures.

There was no avoiding it: In 2011-12, the Towson Tigers were one of the worst teams in college basketball. They finished 1-31, which is kind of as deep as you need to go, analysis-wise. It wasn't long before sarcastic jabs at the Tigers felt downright mean. Frankly, I was cheering for them. Most basketball people get sick at the idea of ending a meaningless pickup run without a win; the thought of winning one of 32 Division I contests was, like, incomprehensible. How could you not empathize?

And then, in 2012-13, something equally incomprehensible happened: Towson started winning.

The Tigers got everyone's attention in late December with an upset win over Oregon State, but anyone who looked closer noticed the Tigers had (a) already won a handful of games to that point and (b) improved statistically in just about every way.

By the time Towson put a bow on its 13-win, second-place CAA campaign, and crowned double-double machine Jerrelle Benimon the Colonial Player of the Year, coach Pat Skerry had engineered the widest turnaround -- a full 17-game swing -- in the history of college basketball.

Hard as it is to believe, here's where Towson now stands: Benimon is returning alongside three fellow starters. South Florida graduate transfer Mike Burwell will bring additional presence on the perimeter. Meanwhile, Skerry is adding one of the better transfers at any level, former Vermont and America East ROY Four McGlynn. McGlynn's all-around shooting brilliance is surpassed only by his enthusiasm for facial hair. He's as viable a CAA MVP candidate as Benimon or anyone else. Most Colonial observers seem to agree: Towson is the team to beat in the CAA.

Some of that has to do with the CAA itself. The Colonial ranks alongside the WAC, C-USA and American as outfits most decimated by the past two years of conference shifts. In 2010-11, the Colonial sent three teams to the NCAA tournament. In 2006 and 2011, it was represented at the Final Four. Now George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU are all gone, and the league's top-to-bottom quality has suffered accordingly.

But crediting a softer CAA would do Towson a deep disservice. It doesn't matter what league you're in: When you go from 1 win to 18 wins in the matter of 12 months, you deserve every single shred of praise that comes your way.

Nor is Towson likely to go away. With a perfectly realistic shot at a CAA title and NCAA tournament bid on deck, plus investment in refurbished facilities at his back, Skerry is building the Tigers into a lasting, viable mid-major entity.

Towson's story could end this season and still be worth a "30 for 30," but Skerry and his team aren't interested in being a heartwarming turnaround tale. The comedy genre is out of the question, too. No one is laughing at the Tigers now.
With college basketball defined more and more each season by parity, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by anything these days.

Especially in the NCAA tournament.

In three of the past four seasons, a team from a non-power conference has advanced to the Final Four and more than held its own upon arrival.

The most recent example is Wichita State, which defeated the likes of Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and Ohio State en route to a showdown with Louisville in the national semifinals. The Shockers lost to the eventual NCAA champs 72-68, but Gregg Marshall’s team certainly made its presence felt in a game that wasn’t decided until the final minute. Along with earning a ton of national respect (if it hadn't done so already), Wichita State’s postseason march was surely inspiring to teams from similar leagues hoping to accomplish the same feat this season.

I’m not predicting that any of these programs will pull a Wichita State and make the Final Four, but here are some schools from non-power conferences that could make some noise in March.

10. Southern -- Florida Gulf Coast became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16 last season, but Southern nearly accomplished something even more impressive when it almost upset Gonzaga before falling 64-58. A victory would’ve made the Jaguars the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1. Southern should be a scary team again in 2013-14. Four of its top five scorers return including 6-foot-6 wing Malcolm Miller, who averaged 15.8 points and a team-high six rebounds. Javan Mitchell (9.5 points) and Jameel Grace (9.2) posted impressive numbers, as well. The Jaguars, who defeated Texas A&M in a nonconference game last season, will likely be challenged in the SWAC by Mike Davis’ Texas Southern squad. Texas Southern won last season’s SWAC title with a 16-2 record (compared to 15-3 for Southern) but was ineligible for the postseason.

9. Towson -- The Tigers pulled off the biggest turnaround in NCAA history by going 18-13 one season after finishing 1-31. Pat Skerry’s squad could be in for even better things, thanks to the return of four starters. The best of the bunch is former Georgetown forward Jerrelle Benimon, who ranked third in the nation in rebounding last season with 11.2 a game. Benimon, who also averaged a team-high 17.1 points, may be even tougher this season thanks to the arrival of 3-point standout Four McGlynn, a Vermont transfer who will be a welcome addition to a team that ranked 258th in the country in 3-point shooting. Small forward Marcus Damas should be the team’s top defender for the second straight season, while Timajh Parker-Rivera has the edge on replacing departed senior Bilal Dixon at power forward. Towson will be playing in a new arena, and the CAA tournament is in Baltimore. It couldn’t be happening at a better time for the Tigers, whose last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1991.

8. Florida Gulf Coast -- It wasn’t long after last season’s surprising march to the Sweet 16 that Eagles coach Andy Enfield was poached by USC. The interest in Enfield hardly came as a surprise, as FGCU was one of the most fascinating stories of the NCAA tournament. Even though Enfield and his “Dunk City” style are gone, the Eagles likely won't take a huge step back. Longtime Kansas assistant Joe Dooley was hired as a replacement and with his pedigree, FGCU may not miss a beat. It’d be a mistake to assume the Eagles will play a completely different style under Dooley, who retained two of Enfield’s top assistants (Marty Richter and Michael Fly). FGCU returns four of its top five scorers: Bernard Thompson, Chase Fieler, Brett Comer and Eric McKnight. And the Eagles add a pair of transfers in Jamail Jones (Marquette) and Nate Hicks (Georgia Tech).

7. Louisiana Tech -- A lot of people forgot about the Bulldogs because they didn’t make the NCAA tournament. Still, finishing 27-7 overall and 16-2 in any conference (yes, even the WAC) is no small feat. Neither is making an appearance, albeit brief, in the Top 25 poll for the first time since 1985. It will be interesting to see if Louisiana Tech can experience similar success during its first season as a member of Conference USA. The Bulldogs certainly have enough pieces for a great season. Leading scorer Raheem Appleby (14.9 points) returns along with Cordarius Johnson (7.9) and Alex Hamilton (7.8), who ranked second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. Leading rebounder Michale Kyser (5.3) is also back. Louisiana Tech lost its final two regular-season games last spring, then fell to UT-San Antonio in the first round of the WAC tournament, which meant it had to settle for an appearance in the NIT, where it beat Florida State and then lost to Southern Miss. It has the potential to make the NCAA tournament in 2013-14. That hasn’t happened since 1991.

6. Boise State -- The Broncos finished 21-11 last season and made the NCAA tournament for just the second time since 1994. Even though they lost to La Salle in the “First Four,” the season was still deemed a huge success, especially considering Boise State played in the Mountain West, easily one of the nation’s toughest conferences. The Broncos have to feel good about their chances for another good season in 2013-14. Four of their top six players return, including leading scorers Anthony Drmic (17.7 PPG) and Derrick Marks (16.3 PPG). Marks shot 42 percent from 3-point range and also averaged nearly four assists. Mikey Thompson (7.9 points) is back, as is leading rebounder Ryan Watkins. With a handful of the conference's top teams expected to take minor steps back, this could be a special season for the Broncos.

5. La Salle -- Last season’s run to the Sweet 16 (which included victories over Boise State, Kansas State and Ole Miss) earned Dr. John Giannini a contract extension, and rightfully so. Before last season the Explorers had won just one NCAA tournament game in 30 years and hadn’t even made the field since 1992. The Explorers are confident their success will continue in 2013-14. Leading scorer Ramon Galloway is gone, but La Salle returns three other double-digit scorers in Tyreek Duren (14.3 points), Tyrone Garland (13) and Jerrell Wright (10.8), who also led the team in rebounds with 6.8 per game. Starting guard Sam Mills, who averaged 33 minutes per game, is also back. Replacing Galloway certainly won’t be easy. He led the team in points, assists and steals. And his on-court swagger set the tone for a team that relied on toughness. Still, with confidence soaring following last season’s 24-10 finish, the Explorers have an excellent chance of returning to the NCAA tournament.

4. Harvard -- Tommy Amaker’s squad pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the NCAA tournament last season by upending No. 3 seed New Mexico. And let’s not forget, it was somewhat surprising that Harvard was even in the field. Harvard played the entire season without its two best players but still managed to win the Ivy League. If Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey return, as expected, the Crimson likely will have their best team in recent history. Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard were all double-figure scorers last season, and Curry and Casey likely will average similar or better point totals in 2013-14. If Harvard makes a postseason run this season, it won’t be nearly as big of a surprise. This is a Top 25-caliber team.

3. Saint Louis -- Some publications tabbed Jim Crews as the national coach of the year after he led the Billikens to the Atlantic 10 title last season. Crews had stepped in for Rick Majerus, who left the team in the fall for health reasons and passed away in December. SLU named Crews the full-time coach after the season, and it’s not unreasonable to think SLU could be just as salty in 2013-14. Guard Kwamain Mitchell is gone, along with A-10 sixth man of the year Cody Ellis. But the Billikens return every other starter from a squad that also won the league tournament title while setting a school record for wins (28). Leading the way will be forward Dwayne Evans, who led last season's team in points (14) and rebounds (7.7). Jordair Jett is back after being named to the A-10’s all-defensive squad. So is Mike McCall Jr., whose 47 3-pointers ranked second on the team. The battle between SLU, La Salle and VCU for the A-10 title should be a good one.

2. VCU -- There were times last season when VCU looked like a top-10 team. Even when VCU went 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis, losing to Duke and Missouri, the Rams showed glimpses of becoming a team that could make the Final Four. No one would be surprised if Shaka Smart’s squad accomplished that feat this season, especially if VCU establishes a little more consistency. The Rams will likely open the season ranked in the top 15. All but two key players (Troy Daniels and Darius Theus) return from last season's squad. Included in that group are double-digit scorers Treveon Graham (15.1 points), Juvonte Reddic (14.6) and Rob Brandenberg (10.1), along with defensive standout Briante Weber, who ranked fifth in the country in steals with 2.7 per game. VCU will continue to play its relentless full-court defense, which is hard to prepare for in a tournament setting because of the quick turnaround. On offense the Rams will score a ton of points in transition. This, once again, will be a fun team to watch -- and a difficult one to play.

1. Wichita State -- Can the Shockers make it to the Final Four two years in a row? Heck, why not? There’s a strong chance that this year’s team could be even better than the unit that lost to Louisville. Losing bruising forward Carl Hall and court leader Malcolm Armstead will hurt, but Marshall’s team returns all of its other key parts. Cleanthony Early, who had 25 points and 10 rebounds against Louisville, is an NBA-caliber small forward. Ron Baker ignited the Shockers’ NCAA tournament run with his prowess from beyond the arc, and point guard Fred VanVleet logged valuable minutes as a freshman backing up Armstead. Tekele Cotton is a returning starter who helps set the tone defensively, and standout shooter Evan Wessel is back after redshirting last season. Look for 6-foot-9 Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kadeem Colby to replace Hall in the paint. Colby spent the past season working out with the Shockers and Marshall couldn’t be more impressed. Chipola (Fla.) College transfer Earl Watson also will be in the mix down low. It should be another great season in Wichita.

Bonus team: Butler -- I goofed up in an earlier version of this blog by including the Bulldogs on this list. The things that Butler accomplished as a mid-major -- advancing to the NCAA title game in 2010 and 2011 -- made Brad Stevens’ players the poster boys for non-power conferences. But things are different now. Butler is in the Big East -- and it made the move without Stevens, who was hired earlier this month as head coach of the Boston Celtics. His replacement, Brandon Miller, faces the tough task of carrying on the tradition established by Stevens and his predecessors. Miller left coaching altogether a few seasons ago when he resigned after six years as an assistant at Ohio State. He got back in the game last year as a special assistant to Illinois coach John Groce before Stevens brought him back to Butler as an assistant a few months before his departure. Miller inherits a team that lost its top two scorers in Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith.

But standouts Khyle Marshall and Roosevelt Jones (the hero of last season’s dramatic win over Gonzaga) return along with Kellen Dunham, one of the country’s top shooters. The biggest issue will be at point guard, where there is no clear front-runner for the starting spot. Jackson Aldridge has yet to establish himself after two seasons, and Devontae Morgan hardly saw the court last year as a freshman. Walk-on Alex Barlow is also a candidate. The Bulldogs certainly don’t have the look of a Final Four team, but if Miller does half as good of a job as Stevens, it would be foolish to count the Bulldogs out.
The dust has finally settled in college basketball.

The transfers have transferred. New coaches are in place now. Most freshmen are on campus. So we can take a serious look at the 2013-14 season and the most valuable players in the game as we prepare for another season with this week's Count 'Em Down series in the Nation blog.

Here’s my list of the top 10 most indispensable players in America. Not necessarily the best players. Simply the ones who are most important to the success of their team.

[+] EnlargeMitch McGary
AP Photo/Morry GashAfter a monster NCAA tournament, Mitch McGary returns to the Wolverines.
10. Mitch McGary (Michigan) -- Even without Trey Burke, Michigan has the tools to win the Big Ten and demand an extended stay in the NCAA tournament. Glenn Robinson III, in a more flexible offensive role in 2013-14, could be one of the best wings in America next season. Nik Stauskas is back, too. Plus, John Beilein’s nationally ranked recruiting class features four-star point guard Derrick Walton, who might be a worthy successor to Burke, last season's Wooden Award winner. But McGary has to carry a lot next season. He was vital in Michigan’s run to the national title game in April. In a league that just lost Cody Zeller, Derrick Nix, Jared Berggren and Trevor Mbakwe, life in the Big Ten should be easier for McGary now. And if he’s effective, he’ll clear space for Michigan’s skilled wings and make the Wolverines a more dominant program.

9. Davante Gardner (Marquette) -- Buzz Williams’ squad could win the first championship in the new Big East. Junior Cadougan, Trent Lockett and Vander Blue are all gone, but multiple veterans return and a strong recruiting class will be in the mix, too. It’s all there for the Golden Eagles. So much of this team’s fate, however, will depend on Davante Gardner. He’s a unique player. Few men his size can move the way he does. But Williams doesn’t need the sluggish big man of last season, who would score 15 points one night and five the next. Williams needs the guy who tore up two of the top frontcourts in the country when he scored 14 points (5-for-7) in a win over Miami in the Sweet 16 and 14 points (6-for-9) in a loss to Syracuse in the Elite Eight. If that guy shows up, Marquette could be one of the most complete teams in the Big East and beyond. With the other version of Gardner, Marquette might be in trouble in the season’s late stages.

8. Russ Smith (Louisville) -- Rick Pitino received great news when Smith announced his return. He flirted with the NBA but ultimately decided to rejoin his teammates and make a run at another national title. The Cardinals will enter the season as strong contenders to defend their crown. Luke Hancock, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell all return for the defending champs. But I can’t see Louisville on the podium again unless Smith competes at an All-American level in 2013-14. “Russdiculous” has been criticized for his mishaps (2.7 turnovers per game). But the Cardinals wouldn’t be the champs without him. The most explosive guard in the country (18.7 PPG, 2.1 SPG) is a two-way catalyst for a team that’s capable of winning its second consecutive championship. Louisville needs him.

7. Alex Kirk (New Mexico) -- Craig Neal’s presence suggests that life without Steve Alford might not be so tough for the Lobos. The former associate head coach offers the program a sense of continuity that is important for any team that suddenly loses a head coach … 10 days after he agrees to a multiyear extension. Neal will have star guard Kendall Williams, but first-round draft pick Tony Snell is gone. A multitude of newcomers and young faces will attempt to fill the void, but their contributions will be less significant than Kirk’s output. The 7-footer is a force when he wants to be. The underrated center scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in his team’s opening-round loss to Harvard in the NCAA tourney. Team’s attack him early to get him into foul trouble because they know he’s essential for the Lobos. But he’s a matchup problem for most opponents. And he balances the floor and helps New Mexico’s wings roam. The big man could be the key to a Mountain West title run and/or a lengthier stay in the NCAA tournament for the Lobos.

[+] EnlargeWichita State Shockers forward Cleanthony Early
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY SportsWichita State's Cleanthony Early gained national attention with his performance in the Final Four.
6. Cleanthony Early (Wichita State) -- There’s a lot of justified hoopla surrounding another team in Kansas. But Wichita State did reach the Final Four a few months ago. It should not be forgotten. And the Shockers were a play or two away from ruining Louisville’s championship run. But the 2013-14 version of the Shockers will not be the same team that rallied to Atlanta. Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead are gone, but Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker and multiple contributors from that team return. So this team still has a high ceiling entering next season, but only if Early fulfills his potential. Although his team lost a 72-68 war against Louisville in Atlanta, his performance (24 points, 10 rebounds, 2-for-4 from the 3-point line) put the country on alert. The 6-8 combo forward can hurt opponents many ways -- and if he does what he’s capable of doing in 2013-14, the Shockers could make another postseason run. If he’s the inconsistent player who never quite found a rhythm during last year’s regular season, the Shockers might go home early.

5. LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State) -- I initially had a different Ohio State player in this slot. Aaron Craft makes a lot of sense for many reasons. He’s the point guard on an Ohio State team that will demand his leadership. But my editor made me think twice. Right team, wrong player. Who will score for the Buckeyes next season if Ross doesn’t? The minimal draft buzz surrounding Deshaun Thomas made it easy to forget how good and important he was for the Buckeyes throughout his career. There’s a huge hole in the middle of the OSU attack that Ross could (must) fill. His explosion in the Big Dance (17 points against Iowa State in the third round, 17 points against Arizona in the Sweet 16, 19 points against Wichita State in the Elite Eight) proved as much. Thad Matta needs him to build off that effort and consistently provide that output for Ohio State in the future.

4. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State) -- This one is simple, right? The best point guard in college basketball has to make this list. Yes, the Pokes suffered a messy opening-round exit against Oregon in the NCAA tournament. Without Smart, however, they would not have earned a 5-seed. And if Smart had decided to turn pro this summer, we wouldn’t be talking about Oklahoma State as the possible favorite to win the Big 12 championship. The stellar leader was the only college player who earned an invite to this week’s Team USA basketball minicamp. The core of last season’s Oklahoma State squad returns for 2013-14. And if Smart equals last season (15.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 3.0 SPG) or – gulp – tops it, then the Cowboys could play their way to Arlington next April.

3. Jahii Carson (Arizona State) -- Arizona State has quietly entered the preseason Top 25 conversation despite a 2012-13 campaign that concluded with four consecutive Pac-12 losses and a second-round exit in the NIT. But Jordan Bachynski is a legit center. And former Penn State standout Jermaine Marshall (15.3 PPG last season) will help the Sun Devils replace Evan Gordon, who transferred to Indiana. But Carson, an all-Pac 12 first-teamer last season, is the difference-maker for a program that will chase its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009. The speedy point guard averaged 18.5 PPG, 5.1 APG and 1.2 SPG last season. Those numbers might result in a preseason All-American nod for the sophomore. But he also averaged 3.5 turnovers per game on an Arizona State squad that was 91st in turnover percentage (18.5) last season per KenPom.com. Herb Sendek can’t afford those mistakes from a player who is vital to a team that has a chance to crash the Top 25 and make noise in the Pac-12 in 2013-14.

2. Doug McDermott (Creighton) -- McDermott is a perennial member of the All-Indispensable Team. I mean, what would Creighton be without him? Give coach Greg McDermott credit for putting the pieces around McDermott that have fueled his impressive run of success. Still, McDermott didn’t just elevate a program. He carried it to a new conference. The Bluejays were enticing to the new Big East because McDermott has made Creighton more nationally relevant over the last three years. Four of the team’s top five scorers from last season, including Grant Gibbs, return. With McDermott leading, Creighton could snatch the inaugural crown in the new Big East.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Wiggins
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesPrep star Andrew Wiggins makes Kansas a title contender even though the Jayhawks lost some key members of last season's team.
1. Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) -- Let me explain, OK? I know Kansas would be fine without the No. 1 recruit in America. Even if Wiggins had taken his talents to Lexington or Tallahassee, the Jayhawks would have still been relevant in the Big 12. They have Perry Ellis, Memphis transfer Tarik Black and a solid recruiting class. Plus, Bill Self has won nine consecutive conference titles. But the only reason we’re talking about Kansas as a potential national title contender, despite losing two pros (Jeff Withey, Ben McLemore) and three other starters (Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young), is because Wiggins is in Lawrence. No high school recruit has ever arrived with this much hype. He might not live up to it. If he does, however, it’ll be easy to see why he’s so indispensable.
Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.

When and where: Dec. 22-23, 25 in Honolulu.

Initial thoughts: I like this field. No, it doesn’t feature any powerhouse programs. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle won’t be here. But I think this might be one of the most balanced brackets among the early tournaments. That’s why I’m intrigued.

Boise State is stacked. About 92 percent of the team’s offensive output from last season returns. The Broncos squad that reached the NCAA tournament last season only had one senior. Leon Rice’s program could be (should be) the favorite to win the Mountain West in 2013-14. And the Broncos are certainly a strong contender to win the Diamond Head Classic title. They have a clear path to the championship game. Hawaii returns two of its top three scorers from a 17-15 squad that couldn’t defend anyone last season (262nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). Saint Mary’s enters the “Life After Matthew Dellavedova” era. Frank Martin’s 2013 recruiting class at South Carolina is a promising addition and a sign of progress, but it might take some time to fit all of the pieces together and that might not be enough to help a Gamecocks team that went 4-14 in the SEC in 2012-13. Boise State stands tall on this side of the bracket.

Iowa State, however, could be potent, too. Fred Hoiberg just signed a 1,000-year extension. So he’s going to be the coach in Ames forever. There’s stability now. And he has a true pillar in Georges Niang. The sophomore is a combo forward who will showcase his full arsenal in 2012-13. He can lead the Cyclones to their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. A pair of ESPN top-100 recruits, Matt Thomas and Monte Morris, will be in the mix, too. And former Marshall guard DeAndre Kane (15.1 PPG and 7.0 APG 2012-13) will be eligible to compete next year after recently graduating. But Sherrod Wright and George Mason will put up a fight against the Cyclones. The Patriots, who are moving to the Atlantic 10, were second in the CAA in 3-point defense (31.6 percent allowed) last year. Iowa State led the nation in 2012-13 with 878 3-pointers. Oregon State is my sleeper pick to win the championship. Eric Moreland, the team’s top rebounder, returns along with Craig Robinson’s top three scorers from last year (Roberto Nelson, Devon Collier and Angus Brandt). The Beavers will open the tournament against an Akron team that lost shot-blocking savant Zeke Marshall and could be without suspended point guard Alex Abreu, who pled guilty to one count of felony drug trafficking last month.

But I’m intrigued by the parity and possibilities.

Matchup I can’t wait to see: Well, Isaac Fotu's afro is just one of the reasons I can’t wait to see the opening-round contest between Hawaii and Boise State. This will be one the first times Boise plays under the pressures that come with expectations. Last year, the Broncos surprised the country. Now, success is expected. The bulk of last year’s tourney squad is back. And now, the team could enter the season as top dog in the Mountain West. But squads unprepared for the spotlight have stumbled early in the past. Perhaps Hawaii will catch BSU at the right time and score a major upset in this game.

[+] EnlargeBoise State's Anthony Drmic
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsBoise State's Anthony Drmic averaged 17.7 points for the Broncos last season.
Potential matchup I can’t wait to see: Well, fast forward to Boise State versus Iowa State in the championship game. There’s a lot on the line for both teams. Boise State wants to meet the hype. Iowa State wants to prove that it can continue to build despite losing key veterans. Niang & Co. would make a huge statement with a victory over a Broncos team that might be in the Top 25 of the preseason polls. Boise State, however, would acquire the same momentum with a Diamond Head Classic title. Last season ended with a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament. It just wasn’t the team’s best night. The Broncos could erase that memory with a strong start in 2013-14. And a tournament victory here would be a great step toward achieving that.

Five players to watch:

Georges Niang, Iowa State: You might not know him yet. But you will soon. Last year, he averaged 12.1 PPG and 4.6 RPG and also made 39 percent of his 3-pointers. And Hoiberg is convinced he’s capable of more in 2013-14. He won’t have a choice. The Cyclones lost four of their top six scorers from last season. Niang has to deliver.

Roberto Nelson, Oregon State: His achievements were buried last year due to his team’s struggles. Although Oregon State lost 14 Pac-12 games, Nelson averaged 17.8 PPG. The 6-3 guard also made 40 percent of his 3-pointers. Can’t get too excited about a squad that struggled the way that Oregon State did a year ago. But Nelson is a star.

Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, Boise State: Both Drmic (17.7 PPG) and Marks (16.3 PPG) cracked the Mountain West’s all-conference second team last year as sophomores. The two guards fueled a Boise State attack that was No. 33 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. The explosive duo could carry Boise State to another NCAA tournament appearance.

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Frank Martin promised two things when he accepted the South Carolina job last year: more love for Pitbull and an upgraded recruiting pool. Thornwell -- ranked 41st among ESPN’s top-100 recruits in the 2013 class -- represents change at South Carolina. He anchors an incoming crew that’s ranked 23rd nationally by ESPN.com. The 6-5 guard could be the young stud that Martin needs to truly build the South Carolina program.

Title game prediction: All signs point to Boise State and Iowa State meeting in the championship. They’re clearly the most talented teams in the field. But the Cyclones might need some time to build chemistry, especially with Kane possibly seizing the starting point guard role. Boise State has the benefit of continuity. And the Broncos’ offensive attack is deep and versatile. I expect to see a close game because Iowa State is legit. But I think Boise State will win the title.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
Jeff Goodman: Boise State over Oregon State
Andy Katz: Boise State over Iowa State
Jason King: Iowa State over Boise State
Dana O'Neil: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. Starting Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET, we'll unveil the final six: Charleston, 2K Sports, Diamond Head, CBE, Wooden and Maui. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Editor's Note: An earlier version of this bracket had a pair of incorrect matchups. We apologize for the mix-up.)

When and where: Nov. 21-22, 24 in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Initial thoughts: The bracket seems to grant Georgetown an easy path to the title game. Northeastern lost its top two scorers -- Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee -- from last season (29.9 PPG combined). And Kansas State is recovering from a tumultuous offseason that included the loss of Angel Rodriguez and Rodney McGruder. Georgetown’s opening-round opponent, Charlotte, had offensive issues last year (187th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) and now top scorer Chris Braswell is gone.

A title, however, is not a guarantee. The Hoyas will probably travel to San Juan without Greg Whittington, who recently tore his ACL. And the other side of the bracket is much tougher, even though Long Beach State is depleted after multiple offseason dismissals. Florida State struggled last season but the Seminoles were young so most of their roster returns, although they’ll miss Michael Snaer. Michigan is the obvious favorite. The Wolverines will be led by Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, a pair of players who would have been first-round draft picks last month had they decided to leave school after their team’s national title game loss to Louisville in April. Freshman Derrick Walton will probably follow Trey Burke as the team’s new point guard. He’ll be surrounded by a strong crew. VCU will be tough, too. The HAVOC defense helped VCU acquire the nation’s highest turnover rate last season. The Rams, however, lost point guard Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. Still, they haven’t lost much steam with a solid recruiting class and Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon in the mix now.

Things could get interesting on Friday in this tournament.

Matchup I can’t wait to see: Florida State has a lot to prove. Last season was a mess for Leonard Hamilton, who recently received a contract extension. His program has a chance, however, to make an early statement in the 2013-14 season with a win over a VCU squad that will be a Top 25 program entering the season. But Shaka Smart has some new faces, and his squad must identify a new leader now that Theus is gone.

[+] EnlargeMcGary/Robinson
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III could have been first-round NBA draft picks following Michigan's run to the national title game.
Potential matchup I can’t wait to see: Can you say rematch? The last time Michigan and VCU met, the Wolverines pummeled the Rams in the third round of the NCAA tournament. That 25-point victory was an embarrassment for a VCU squad that was completely out of rhythm from tipoff. But the Rams are deep again. And the Wolverines have a couple of potential lottery picks running the operation again. I’d love to see these two squads face off again in the semis.

Five players to watch:

Treveon Graham, VCU: The Rams are often praised for their defensive strengths. Last season, however, VCU proved its worth on offense, too -- averaging 78.0 points (11th in the nation). Graham, the team’s top scorer, was a catalyst. He averaged 15.1 PPG and 5.8 RPG. He also hit 36.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Graham doesn’t waste minutes, either. He had the Atlantic 10’s top offensive rating (118.1 per KenPom.com, among players who used at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions). Last season was a breakout campaign for this guy. If VCU reaches its ceiling, the 6-foot-5 guard/forward could earn All-American consideration.

Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, Michigan: After the Wolverines rumbled to the national championship game in Atlanta, many expected McGary and Robinson to take their talents to the NBA. The two youngsters had a chance to turn pro and make millions. But their decision to return means that the Wolverines will enter the season as Big Ten contenders again. There’s a huge gap at PG, a spot that was occupied by Wooden Award winner Trey Burke last season. With McGary and Robinson back, John Beilein has one of America’s top centers and one of the nation’s most versatile wings. This tournament will be an early opportunity for the duo to prove that Michigan is still potent without Burke.

Okaro White, Florida State: There’s a lot of pressure on White right now. Florida State will enter 2013-14 without top scorer and veteran Michael Snaer. Terrance Shannon transferred. And Leonard Hamilton will be forced to rely on some young players again in a league (ACC) that could be the nation’s best conference with the arrival of Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse. But White made major strides in his junior campaign. The 6-8 forward averaged 12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.1 blocks. He hit 81.5 percent of his free throws, and he was 10th in the ACC with a 4.13 block percentage (KenPom.com). But can he lead this group? We’ll find out in Puerto Rico.

Markel Starks, Georgetown: Greg Whittington’s torn ACL jeopardizes his entire season and it also jeopardizes the Hoyas’ season. Three other starters from last season return. But it was much easier to view Georgetown as a threat to win the inaugural title in the new Big East when Whittington was healthy. To maintain that hope -- if Whittington can’t return -- Starks has to guide a team that still has some talented pieces from last season and will add UCLA transfer Josh Smith after the first semester. Starks did it all for Georgetown last year (12.8 points, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 41.7 percent from the 3-point line). But the Hoyas might need him to do even more in 2013-14.

Title-game prediction: VCU over Georgetown.

The Hoyas should reach the title game, but I think they’ll face a VCU squad that’s equipped with a multitude of talent and depth. Smart has a rotation that could be 10-11 players deep. And even though he has lost a few veterans, he will gain the services of former top recruits Mo Alie-Cox and Jordan Burgess, two players who were academically ineligible for competition last season. And Shannon, the Florida State transfer, will be available, too. Smart’s HAVOC attack demands talent and depth, and he has both. This is the most skilled squad that he has had at VCU. That’s just too much for Georgetown to overcome, especially with VCU’s interior advantage (see Shannon and 6-9 forward Juvonte Reddic). These Rams will be dangerous. They’ll prove it in San Juan.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: VCU over Georgetown
Jeff Goodman: VCU over Northeastern
Seth Greenberg: Michigan over Georgetown
Andy Katz: Michigan over Georgetown
Jason King: VCU over Kansas State
Dana O'Neil: VCU over Kansas State

Eight minutes too much for NCAA

June, 14, 2013
6/14/13
1:15
PM ET
Today, the new Superman movie “Man of Steel” will make its debut in theaters around the world. I haven’t seen it yet (no spoilers, please), but we all know the story.

Homeboy in spandex and a red cape saves the day, and everyone goes home happy.

The NCAA is a bit like Superman for college sports. When there is a problem, a pressing issue, the Indianapolis-based organization flies to the scene of the disturbance and solves any ills that threaten the landscape of collegiate athletics.

[+] EnlargeDonte Hill
Gary Brittain/ Icon SMIOld Dominion's Donte Hill was denied an extra year of eligibility because he played eight minutes of a closed scrimmage in 2010 while with Clemson.
In its latest noble effort, the NCAA has decided to deny the appeal of Old Dominion’s Donte Hill, who requested an extra year of eligibility to compete during the 2013-14 season. The heroic NCAA, however, rejected his request.

His crime? He played eight minutes of a closed scrimmage in 2010 before announcing his decision to transfer from Clemson a few days later. Hill, a 6-4 guard who averaged 8.2 PPG and 4.0 RPG for an Old Dominion squad that finished 5-25 overall last season, requested a waiver to play a fourth year (he sat out during the 2010-11 season).

But the NCAA’s brilliant minds chose to uphold their bylaws, according to the Virginian Pilot’s Ed Miller and Harry Minium:
Where does an eight-minute stint in a closed basketball scrimmage count as an entire season of competition?

Unfortunately for Old Dominion's Donte Hill, in the NCAA rule book.

Sticking to the letter of that bylaw, the NCAA on Thursday denied an appeal by ODU to restore a final season of eligibility for Hill, a co-captain who led the Monarchs in minutes played last season.

The ruling means that the career of the 6-foot-4 Norfolk Collegiate graduate is over.

"It's just a shame," coach Jeff Jones said. "I understand the rule is the rule. Unfortunately, Donte is the one who pays the price."

The issue stemmed from a closed scrimmage Hill played in for Clemson in 2010, days before announcing that he was transferring. An NCAA bylaw states that "any competition, regardless of time, during a season in an intercollegiate sport shall be counted as a season of competition in that sport."

An exception is made for players in their first year in school. Hill, however, was in his second year at Clemson.

ODU coaches were aware Hill had played in the scrimmage when he transferred but apparently were counting on receiving a waiver. After sitting out a season as a transfer, Hill was classified by ODU as a sophomore in 2011-12 and a junior last season. No mention was made of a potential eligibility problem.

Jones said he became aware of the issue after he took over for Blaine Taylor as coach in April.

"It's just unfortunate," he said. "I feel really bad for Donte. As I told him this morning, I was looking forward to coaching him."

It's unclear whether the player was fully aware that he risked losing a full season when he decided to transfer from Clemson. Attempts to reach Hill on Thursday were unsuccessful.

Hill played one season there under former Tigers coach Oliver Purnell and sought to transfer after new coach Brad Brownell took over. Clemson informed ODU that Hill had participated in the scrimmage, against the University of Georgia, in October 2010.

Hill is on track to graduate in August and would have competed as a graduate student this coming season. An excellent student who is active in the community, he is the sort of player the NCAA makes commercials about, former ODU associate coach Jim Corrigan said.

"He represents everything that the NCAA espouses for a student athlete to be," Corrigan said. "He has handled himself with dignity and class on and off the court and in every facet of his life. It is extremely unfortunate that he's being penalized in such a manner when he has done everything the right way."

Just like that. Career. Over.

No explanation necessary.

This is the NCAA.

As Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg notes, the NCAA has been lenient in other cases.
That the NCAA chose a strict interpretation of the rule is a bit surprising both because of the severity of the penalty and because of the precedent it has previously set. In 2011, the NCAA chose not to take a full year of eligibility from Notre Dame's Tim Abromaitis for playing in two exhibition games during a redshirt year, opting instead to more justly punish him with a four-game suspension to start his senior season.

The difference in Abromaitis' situation is Notre Dame coach Mike Brey intended to redshirt the forward but made a mistake and interpreted the rule wrong. There is no indication Clemson coaches intended to redshirt Hill had he chosen to remain with the Tigers for the season.

The NCAA is hot and cold when it comes to rulings. Former Missouri guard Michael Dixon hopes to play next season for Memphis after missing a year of competition because of a sexual assault investigation. Dez Wells, who dealt with a similar situation at Xavier, was allowed to compete immediately for Maryland last season after he left his former program.

Dixon and Wells were not charged in their respective cases.

But their situations were far more serious than Hill’s scenario.

He played in a closed scrimmage for eight minutes. And now, he can’t play next season, which should be his senior campaign.

It just doesn’t make sense.

But that’s the norm with the NCAA.
1. Creighton's Doug McDermott is nowhere near close to making a decision on whether to declare for the NBA or return to the Bluejays, his father and coach Greg McDermott said. Greg McDermott said Doug will take this call down to the NBA's April 28 deadline -- the only one that really matters. Doug McDermott isn't feeling any pressure about the April 16 NCAA deadline -- and that's good, because that one means nothing. The NCAA doesn't put out a list on that date and neither does the NBA. The only deadline that produces an early-entry list is the April 28 deadline. A player could say he's returning to school next week and then declare 12 days later without any issue. Doug McDermott has one of the toughest decisions of any player, because if he decides to leave his dad will face a difficult season in the Bluejays' first season in the new Big East. If Doug stays, Creighton has a chance to contend for the new league's title.

2. New Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich said Wednesday that the timing was right and he just had a feeling that he needed to move after 15 years at Niagara. Mihalich is trading one set of problems for another. Niagara, north of Buffalo, N.Y., isn't exactly in fertile recruiting territory, but Mihalich has made it work and competed for league titles in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Hofstra, on Long Island, is in a fertile recruiting area but is in rebuilding mode. The MAAC and the Colonial Athletic Association are typically one-bid leagues at this juncture. Mihalich has had other opportunities to leave but chose to stay. He said every time he considers one, the same two questions come to mind: Who is the president and who is the athletic director? Mihalich felt comfortable with current AD Jeff Hathaway, who previously held the same position at Connecticut, and president Stuart Rabinovitz. Hathaway wanted a sitting head coach and stayed true to his goal in the search.

3. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin praised the "mature decision" by junior Sean Kilpatrick to return for his senior season. Cronin is convinced Kilpatrick will work on his game enough to be a draft pick next year. Kilpatrick will have a new backcourt mate with Cashmere Wright gone; those in the running to replace Wright will include freshmen Kevin Johnson and Troy Caupain and junior Ge'Lawn Guyn.
1. The NCAA's random date of April 16 to declare for the NBA draft isn't pressuring a number of players into making quick decisions. Coaches are now savvy to the date as being meaningless. That's why Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk may wait to decide until the NBA's own early-entry deadline of April 28. Olynyk is probably going to be the same player in the NBA whether he declares next season or this. He is a Wooden All-America and, if he were to return, would be one of the contenders for player of the year. Missouri's Phil Pressey is also weighing a similar decision over the next few weeks. A number of players haven't outlined their intentions but have plenty of time, like Miami's Shane Larkin, Kansas' Ben McLemore, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Georgetown's Otto Porter, Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, Syracuse's C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams, Louisville's Russ Smith as well as Indiana's Cody Zeller. Cal's Allen Crabbe joined the list of draftees earlier Wednesday. I fully expect Indiana's Victor Oladipo, Louisville's Gorgui Dieng, UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Michigan's Trey Burke to declare soon. No official word out of Connecticut, but the staff is anticipating -- at this point -- that guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright will return (smart move if it happens, since they don't have an NBA home to go to next season).

2. The Big Ten suddenly got incredibly younger with this week's two coaching hires -- Northwestern announcing Chris Collins and Minnesota tabbing Richard Pitino. The under-40 club will give the league a new look. The two take over programs that are striving for consistency, but both desperately need an upgrade in facilities to hang with the big boys. Collins and Pitino will need to use their youthful enthusiasm to build momentum since the dollars aren't in place for facilities they were used to -- Collins was at Duke and Pitino at Louisville and Florida before his stop at Florida International. Northwestern had been looking at Collins for quite some time. But Pitino was clearly a new name for Minnesota in the past week as athletic director Norwood Teague looked for an off-the-grid-type hire like he made at Virginia Commonwealth. Pitino got off to an impressive start in his coaching career at FIU with the upset of Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt tournament and a chance to earn the league's automatic NCAA tournament berth. Now he'll face his toughest challenge of his career. He has a brand name in basketball, which carries weight, but will need to put together a strong staff to quickly earn the trust of his players this spring and summer. This can work at both places. Memphis, for example, has been a soaring success under Josh Pastner. Pastner led the Tigers to conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances as a young, vibrant assistant-turned-head-coach of a major program. Collins was a fit at Northwestern so there's no issue there. But give Pitino a chance to see if this could work.

3. Old Dominion looked like it was set to go to former Western Kentucky and Georgia coach Dennis Felton before the Monarchs and athletic director Wood Selig tabbed American's Jeff Jones. This hire came out of left field, but might end up being one of the better fits. Jones played and coached at Virginia and should be able to recruit well in the fertile Tidewater area. Jones had made American a consistent Patriot League contender, which isn't easy to do in a conference where Bucknell and Lehigh are the anchors. ODU knows who it is and wanted to gravitate toward a coach that made sense. This hire does.
1. Minnesota coveted VCU’s Shaka Smart, but his former boss, current Golden Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague, couldn’t convince Smart to come to the Twin Cities (he should know Smart is loyal to VCU) for the head-coaching job from which Tubby Smith was just fired. According to sources, the Gophers have now turned their attention to Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg and Butler’s Brad Stevens. We’ll see, but I’ll be shocked if either were to go to Minnesota. Hoiberg is the Mayor in Ames (it's his alma mater) and has Iowa State in a good place after back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. If Hoiberg were to leave for Minnesota, the NBA's Timberwolves, not the Gophers, would make more sense. I can’t see Stevens bolting, either, with how much he loves the Butler way and working for AD Barry Collier. Stevens can have a lifetime contract at Butler, much like Mark Few has at Gonzaga. If they can't convince either of these two, the Gophers may make a play for Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin. But Cronin is from Cincinnati and loves his gig, too. The only reason he might listen is if he sees the need to go to a school in a more stable conference.

2. NC State has made it clear that coach Mark Gottfried hasn’t heard anything from UCLA. Athletic director Debbie Yow also is quick to remind everyone of the $3.75 million buyout in Gottfried’s contract, which she terms non-negotiable. Much as he got many in the Research Triangle to warm to NC State, Gottfried would fit at UCLA. But it would be too hard for UCLA to pry him out of Raleigh. Multiple sources continue to think the Bruins may have to go with an NBA coach. But there are other options out there -- Washington’s Lorenzo Romar, a former UCLA assistant, hasn’t been contacted; apparently neither has Colorado’s Tad Boyle, who has recruited Los Angeles well. USC, meanwhile, might end up going with a quality coach, albeit not a huge name. Remember, Oregon didn’t get its first choice, but did land a big-time talent in Dana Altman. It can be done.

3. Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway has made it clear he wants a current head coach for its vacancy, according to sources, making it seem more realistic he would lean toward coaches like Iona’s Tim Cluess and/or Tom Moore of Quinnipiac. Quality openings like Old Dominion and Siena remain. Meanwhile, sources close to former UCLA coach Ben Howland anticipate he’ll sit out next season rather than take a job.
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.

Charleston vs. Davidson, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 -- The Southern Conference title game at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, N.C., features two of the hottest mid-majors in the country. Davidson owned the SoCon’s top scoring offense after averaging 74.6 points per game during SoCon play this season. Plus, the Wildcats only allowed 56.9 PPG in conference play, which is also No. 1 in the league. They haven’t lost since Jan. 14. The veteran duo of De'Mon Brooks (13.5 PPG) and Jake Cohen (14.9 PPG) anchors one of the top mid-major programs in America.

But Charleston, which finished second to Davidson in the SoCon’s South Division, has won six of its past seven games. The Cougars have held three of their past five opponents to 55 points or less. Senior Andrew Lawrence is averaging 17.5 PPG in the SoCon tourney thus far. But the Cougars have already suffered two losses against Davidson this season.

Pick: Davidson 69, Charleston 59

Western Kentucky vs. Florida International, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN -- The most surprising element of this matchup is the fact that Middle Tennessee, the dominant regular-season champ, is not participating in the Sun Belt’s tournament title game. Richard Pitino, son of Louisville’s Rick Pitino, has led the Golden Panthers to the championship matchup in his first season as head coach. They reached the final stage of the conference tournament with a Sunday upset of Middle Tennessee, a loss that snapped a 17-game winning streak for the Blue Raiders. Malik Smith (14.1 PPG) has gone 11-for-16 from the 3-point line in the conference tournament thus far.

Western Kentucky, which finished 10-10 in league play, wasn’t expected to advance this far, either. But the Hilltoppers have a shot at their second consecutive Sun Belt tourney title and automatic berth. T.J. Price (15.5 PPG) might be the best player on the floor.

Pick: FIU 70, WKU 69 (overtime)

James Madison vs. Northeastern, 7 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network -- Northeastern, the CAA’s regular-season champ, was on the ropes in a Sunday semifinal matchup against George Mason. The Huskies were down by 24 points in the first half but stormed back in the second to earn the two-point win and a spot in tonight’s championship game in Richmond, Va. Guard Joel Smith (16.4 PPG) will be the most talented player in the gym.

James Madison, which held CAA opponents to a league-low 60.8 PPG, squeezed by Delaware in the semis. The Dukes have won five of their past seven games.

Pick: James Madison 66, Northeastern 64

St. Mary’s vs. No. 1 Gonzaga, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN -- The Zags have achieved the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking. It’s an honorable achievement for a team that’s also in a position to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament entering this evening’s West Coast Conference tournament championship game against Saint Mary’s in Las Vegas. Gonzaga has earned the praise it has received to date. But tonight’s matchup -- within the WCC -- is more significant than any poll.

Last season, the Bulldogs failed to win the WCC tournament or regular-season titles for the first time in nearly 15 years. The Gaels snatched both. So revenge is a factor in the third matchup between these two rivals in 2012-13.

Kelly Olynyk, a national player of the year candidate averaging 17.3 PPG, and his teammates have already defeated Saint Mary’s twice this season. But Matthew Dellavedova (16.2 PPG) & Co. will come out swinging in hopes of avoiding any Selection Sunday drama.

Pick: Gonzaga 74, Saint Mary’s 68

Manhattan vs. Iona, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2 -- The MAAC championship game will pit the league’s top offensive and defensive teams against one another. Iona’s Momo Jones (23.3 PPG) commands the MAAC’s best scoring unit (80.0 PPG in league play). Overall, the Gaels are second in the country with an 81.3 PPG average in 2012-13. But their defense has been suspect all season (league-high 75.1 PPG allowed).

Manhattan (57.6 PPG allowed in conference play, No. 1 in the MAAC) held Fairfield to just 42 points in the semifinals. Loyola (MD) recorded 52 points against the Jaspers in the quarterfinals.

Manhattan and Iona split their two games during the regular season. So who wins tonight? Iona and its fluid offense or Manhattan and its stubborn defense?

Pick: Iona 76, Manhattan 74

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
10:24
AM ET
Here are the latest mid-major power rankings for ESPN.com as voted upon by our national panel. I also vote in this poll, which does not include teams from the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West.

A quick look at the panel:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) covers Horizon League basketball for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College.

Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an assistant director of athletic communications at Middle Tennessee.

Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) covers Murray State athletics for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun.

John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball for his website, nycbuckets.com.

Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as director of athletic communications at Stony Brook University.

Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) covers South Dakota State basketball for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mid-Major Power Rankings: Week 10
  1. Gonzaga (27-2, 14-0 WCC). Future NBA big man Kelly Olynyk has led the Zags to the top of the WCC.
  2. Middle Tennessee (25-4, 17-1 Sun Belt). The Blue Raiders have defeated their past two opponents by 35 points and 41 points, respectively.
  3. Akron (23-4, 13-0 MAC). The Zips cracked the latest coaches’ poll. They haven’t lost since Dec. 15.
  4. Saint Mary’s (25-5, 13-2 WCC). Saturday’s win over Creighton enhanced the Gaels’ at-large profile.
  5. Belmont (23-6, 13-2 Ohio Valley). The Bruins’ three-game winning streak includes a lopsided win over Ohio last weekend.
  6. Bucknell (24-5, 11-2 Patriot League). The Bison sealed the Patriot League regular-season crown with their three-game winning streak.
  7. Creighton (23-7, 12-5 MVC). Wednesday night's victory over Bradley sets up a huge showdown with Wichita State on Saturday.
  8. Wichita State (24-6, 12-5 MVC). Shockers can secure a No. 1 seed in the MVC tourney with a win over Creighton.
  9. Louisiana Tech (24-3, 14-0 WAC). The Bulldogs, who haven’t lost since Dec. 12, earned the No. 25 slot in the latest AP poll.
  10. Stephen F. Austin (23-3, 13-2 Southland). The Lumberjacks control the Southland but they’ll need a league tourney title to get an NCAA bid.
  11. Valparaiso (23-7, 12-3 Horizon). The Crusaders are a game ahead of Detroit with one regular-season contest to play.
  12. Davidson (22-7, 16-1 Southern). The Wildcats have won 13 in a row and they defeated Montana in overtime on Saturday.
  13. Stony Brook (21-6, 12-2 America East). The Seawolves have four players who are averaging at least 8.8 points per game.
  14. BYU (20-9, 9-5 WCC). The Cougars have lost three of their past five games.
  15. Ohio (20-8, 11-2 MAC). The Bobcats have lost two in a row, including a heartbreaker in overtime against Akron Wednesday night.
Team of the Week: Prior to its recent success, Evansville had lost four of its past five games. But the Aces have finished strong. They won their third consecutive game 59-56 Wednesday night at Wichita State. The victory also ensures they’ll end the regular season with a .500 record (or better) in conference play. That’s a solid turnaround for this program.

Player of the Week: Delaware’s Devon Saddler, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, has led the Fightin’ Blue Hens to a top-three finish in the CAA with his efforts in their past three games, all close contests. Last week, he scored 31 points in a 73-71 double-overtime win against Drexel. He followed that performance with 24 points (10-for-20 from the field) in a 79-78 win at UNC-Wilmington on Saturday. And Wednesday night, he scored 19 points in a 57-56 victory at Hofstra.

Notes
  • Montana’s Big Sky tourney plans may have changed with recent injuries to top contributors Mathias Ward and Will Cherry. Cherry re-injured the foot he broke prior to the start of the season in last weekend’s BracketBusters loss to Davidson. And Ward suffered a sprained arch in his left foot in a win over Idaho State during the previous weekend. Both could be unavailable or limited in the postseason.
  • North Dakota State’s Taylor Braun, the program’s top scorer, was rusty Tuesday night, going 0-for-4 in 18 minutes of a 63-56 win over Utah Valley State. It was his first game back after missing 10 games with a foot injury. The Bison are a game behind South Dakota State for first place in the Summit League. If the Jackrabbits get past Omaha-Nebraska on Thursday night, they’ll win the league title. But North Dakota State, with the conference’s best defensive unit (34th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) could be the favorite to win the conference tourney now that Braun has returned.
  • Dan Monson has done it again. Long Beach State (13-2 in conference play) is in command of the Big West with three games to play (Pacific is 3.5 games behind the 49ers). This team is not as fluid as last season's veteran crew. But with transfers Keala King (Arizona State) and James Ennis (17.1 ppg), the 49ers are certainly skilled as they prepare for another run at the Big West tournament title and the league’s automatic bid.

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
10:20
AM ET
Here are the latest mid-major power rankings for ESPN.com as voted upon by our national panel. I also vote in this poll, which does not include teams from the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West.

A quick look at the panel:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) covers Horizon League basketball for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College.

Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an assistant director of athletic communications at Middle Tennessee.

Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) covers Murray State athletics for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun.

John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball for his website, nycbuckets.com.

Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as director of athletic communications at Stony Brook University.

Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) covers South Dakota State basketball for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mid-Major Power Rankings: Week 9
  1. Gonzaga (26-2, 13-0 WCC). The Zags don’t have an equal in the WCC, and now they’re in contention for a No. 1 seed.
  2. Middle Tennessee (23-4, 15-1 Sun Belt). The Blue Raiders can do more harm than good to their at-large status in the Sun Belt, but they’ve won 12 in a row.
  3. Akron (21-4, 12-0 MAC). The Zips own the nation’s longest winning streak (17 in a row) entering a BracketBusters matchup against North Dakota State on Friday.
  4. Wichita State (23-5, 12-4 MVC). The Shockers are back on top of the Missouri Valley Conference after winning four in a row.
  5. Saint Mary’s (22-5, 11-2 WCC). The Gaels need a win Saturday against Creighton in BracketBusters because it’s probably their last opportunity for a quality win in the regular season.
  6. Bucknell (22-5, 9-2 Patriot). The Bison took control of the Patriot League with Monday’s road win over rival Lehigh.
  7. Creighton (22-6, 11-5 MVC). The Bluejays might be safe in the eyes of the selection committee for now, but their recent struggles -- losing three of their past five -- suggest that might not last.
  8. Belmont (21-6, 12-2 OVC). The Bruins were rolling in the OVC until they hit their four-game road stretch.
  9. Louisiana Tech (24-3, 14-0 WAC). The Bulldogs are still winning (16 consecutive victories), and they’re still hard to gauge due to the limited competition they’re facing in the WAC.
  10. Stephen F. Austin (22-3, 13-2 Southland). The Lumberjacks are ranked fourth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, and they’ve won six of seven.
  11. Ohio (20-6, 11-1 MAC). The Bobcats are one game behind an Akron team (in the MAC’s East Division) that they’ll face again Feb. 27. This time, Ohio will get the Zips on its home floor.
  12. Valparaiso (21-7, 11-3 Horizon). The Crusaders are still on top of the Horizon League despite losing a war with Detroit over the weekend.
  13. Montana (19-5, 15-1 Big Sky). The Grizzlies’ 14-game winning streak was snapped by rival Weber State on Valentine’s Day.
  14. Detroit (18-9, 10-4 Horizon). With Saturday’s come-from-behind road victory over Valpo, the athletic Titans are just a game behind the Crusaders.
  15. BYU (20-8, 9-4 WCC). The Cougars have an RPI of 62, but they don’t have any quality wins. They’ll face Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga in the next week, so that could change.
Team of the Week: Gonzaga continues to roll through the West Coast Conference. The Zags have won nine consecutive games, a run that includes a 17-point win over Saint Mary’s on Valentine’s Day. They don’t have the week-to-week competition that their top-10 counterparts face each week, but if they continue to win -- and the No. 3 Zags might not lose again until March Madness begins -- the selection committee might have to give the program a No. 1 seed.

Player of the Week: Longwood’s Tristan Carey put up video game numbers during his team’s last two games, both wins. In a 76-61 victory over Radford on Saturday, he finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 36 minutes. The 6-foot-4 guard recorded 40 points, 12 rebounds and two steals while going 8-for-15 from the 3-point line in his team’s 102-101 win over Liberty on Tuesday.

Notes
  • Indiana State is probably the most vulnerable bubble team playing in BracketBusters on Saturday. The Sycamores have wins over Miami, Ole Miss, Creighton and Wichita State, yet they’ve also lost to the worst teams in the Missouri Valley Conference and jeopardized their bubble status. Iona is one of the top offensive squads in the country (81.5 ppg), and their 9-7 record in the MAAC is deceiving since they’ve lost five games by three points or fewer since Jan. 31. The Sycamores cannot afford to take a loss in this one.
  • Let’s talk about Siyani Chambers. Harvard’s freshman point guard is averaging 13.0 points, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals a game for a Crimson squad that’s on top of the Ivy League. The latter was not a given after former standouts Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry left the program before the season following an academic scandal. But the young catalyst could lead Tommy Amaker’s program back to the NCAA tournament. It would be a surprising turn for a program that lost its best players before 2012-13 began.
  • Taylor Braun (15.2 ppg) will probably miss North Dakota State’s matchup at Akron on Friday. But the Bison’s leading scorer could return as early as next week from a foot injury. That’s significant for the entire Summit League, and not just because the Bison are a game behind conference leader South Dakota State with one more league game to play. The winner of the conference tourney will be the only team representing this league in the NCAA tournament. Add Braun to a Bison team that’s ranked 36th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Pomeroy and this squad might be the favorite to win it.

3-point shot: A more mellow Frank Martin?

February, 21, 2013
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1. Frank Martin has weathered the storm of a six-game losing streak and a bit of a media meltdown in breaking down the ineptitude of the Gamecocks last week. Martin's demeanor during South Carolina's upset win over Ole Miss on Wednesday night in Columbia was reserved for him. He sat for most of the game. He didn't need to yell as the Gamecocks came up with defensive stops, blocked shots and forced Ole Miss into poor rushed possessions. This isn't necessarily a mellow Martin compared to his intense stare-downs and animated sideline behavior at Kansas State. But he clearly has seen this is a complete overhaul at South Carolina and has to show some patience as long as the effort is in place and the execution follows the instructions. This is exactly what occurred in the final five minutes against the Rebels. In spending the evening in Columbia, I got the sense that there is a real belief that Martin will turn the Gamecocks around. And he should. The SEC is probably the best conference right now for upward mobility because so many programs are struggling to find consistency.

2. If the ACC wants to take full advantage of adding Syracuse in 2013-14 then it should guarantee at least Duke or North Carolina once a season at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse has already announced a 35,012 crowd for Saturday's game against Georgetown. That will be the 17th time the Orange have had 30,000-plus for a Georgetown game, the most of any other opponent. Syracuse is losing Georgetown as a conference opponent after this season. Three of the top eight 30,000-plus crowds at the Carrier Dome are eventually going with Syracuse to the ACC in Pitt (7), Notre Dame (6) and Louisville (4). The 35,012 fans coming for Saturday's game against Georgetown is yet another reminder of the Big East breaking up and what the Northeast college basketball fan will be missing.

3. Old Dominion is expected to have an interest in former Georgia coach Dennis Felton as a potential prime candidate for the open head coaching position after athletic director Wood Selig fired Blaine Taylor. Felton worked for Selig at Western Kentucky. Felton worked five-plus seasons at Georgia before being fired in the middle of the SEC season in 2009. Felton coached the Bulldogs to an SEC tournament title, recruited well and got Georgia through a post-probationary period. ODU, which is currently led by interim coach Jim Corrigan, is going to end up being one of the best jobs in Conference USA when the Monarchs move next season. The Monarchs beat UNC Wilmington 84-61 Wednesday night for their only second win of the conference season and fourth overall.

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

February, 14, 2013
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Here are the latest mid-major power rankings for ESPN.com as voted upon by our national panel. I also vote in this poll, which does not include any teams from the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West.

Another quick look at the panel:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) covers Horizon League basketball for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College.

Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an assistant director of athletic communications at Middle Tennessee State University.

Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) covers Murray State athletics for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun.

John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball for his website, nycbuckets.com.

Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as director of athletic communications at Stony Brook University.

Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) covers South Dakota State basketball for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mid-Major Power Rankings: Week 8
  1. Gonzaga (23-2, 10-0 WCC) – Zags face their last true conference test in a road matchup at Saint Mary’s on Thursday night.
  2. Saint Mary’s (21-4, 10-1 WCC) – The Gaels will have a lot to prove when they face the WCC kings tonight.
  3. Middle Tennessee State (22-4, 14-1 Sun Belt) – The Blue Raiders are ranked 21st in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, and they’ve won 11 in a row.
  4. Belmont (20-5, 11-1 OVC) – Saturday loss at Murray State damaged Bruins’ (RPI: 24) at-large potential.
  5. Akron (20-4, 11-0 MAC) – The Zips are still winning. Their 16-game winning streak is the nation’s longest.
  6. Bucknell (21-4, 8-1 Patriot League) – The Bison’s 46.1 percent clip from the field is 47th nationally.
  7. Wichita State (21-5, 10-4 MVC) – The Shockers’ dreams of an at-large bid have certainly been affected by a stretch that has included three losses in five games.
  8. Creighton (20-6, 9-5 MVC) – The Bluejays are a mystery. Just a few weeks ago, they were the kings of the conference, but they’re riding a three-game losing streak right now.
  9. Stephen F. Austin (20-2, 11-1 Southland) – The Lumberjacks are ranked third in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy.
  10. Louisiana Tech (21-3, 12-0 WAC) – The Bulldogs have not lost a game since Dec. 12.
  11. Lehigh (18-5, 8-1 Patriot League) – On Monday, the Mountain Hawks will host Bucknell in a matchup that could determine the Patriot League’s regular-season title.
  12. Murray State (18-5, 9-2 OVC) – The Racers have won three in a row, a stretch that includes a five-point win against Belmont. Isaiah Canaan is averaging 21.0 PPG.
  13. Ohio (18-6, 9-1 MAC) – The Bobcats have won three in a row since suffering a Feb. 2 loss at Akron.
  14. Valparaiso (20-6, 10-2 Horizon League) – The Crusaders have gradually separated themselves from the rest of the league with four consecutive wins. They’ll host Detroit (second place in the Horizon League) on Saturday.
  15. BYU (18-8, 8-4 WCC) – After losing three of their past six, the Cougars have probably played their way out of the WCC title chase.
Team of the Week: Murray State enters Thursday night’s game at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville riding a three-game winning streak. That run includes a 79-74 victory against Belmont on Feb. 7. The Racers possess the Ohio Valley Conference’s top scoring defense (61.5 PPG allowed in conference play). And Canaan (21.0 PPG) is ninth nationally in scoring. Although Belmont has a better record, Murray State’s win against the Bruins suggests that the Racers are not only the kings of the West Division, but also kings of the entire league.

Player of the Week: Illinois State forward Jackie Carmichael is the catalyst for the Redbirds’ surge up the Missouri Valley Conference standings. He finished with 27 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks in a 79-59 win against Bradley on Wednesday night. He had 16 points, 6 rebounds and a pair of steals when Illinois State upset Creighton in Omaha, Neb., on Saturday with a 75-72 win. The Redbirds have won seven of their past eight. With Carmichael playing like this, Illinois State can outplay any team in the league.

Notes
  • The Summit League title chase added another contender over the weekend when Oakland defeated South Dakota State 88-83 on Saturday. It was the fifth consecutive with for the Golden Grizzlies (8-4), who are two games behind first-place Western Illinois (10-2) with five games remaining on their conference slate.
  • Remember when the Missouri Valley Conference looked like a three-bid league? Doesn’t look that way right now. The recent chaos at the top of the league has threatened its status as a potential multiple-bid conference. Based on RPI and their shaky resumes, Wichita State (41), Creighton (55) and Indiana State (58) are all bubble teams right now.
  • Montana established a Big Sky record by earning its 25th consecutive conference win, a 78-58 victory against North Dakota on Saturday. The Grizzlies have won 14 consecutive games. Now let’s look at the top upcoming mid-major matchup: Saturday's game between Wichita State and Illinois State.

 

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