Ahead of Schedule: Mid-Majors Surprisingly Competing This Year

By Kevin Sweeney

As hard as it may be to believe, Senior Day’s are starting to come around, with many teams honoring the backbones of their teams as they gear up for one last run at March Madness glory. However, some teams already in position to compete this season should return their current core next season. Many of these teams entered the season with little to no fanfare, but now have a chance to burst onto the scene in March a year or 2 before most thought they might. Here are a few clubs to watch not only this March, but for years to come.

Rider: MAAC

The Broncs entered the 2017-18 season as a bit of an afterthought in the MAAC, as with 4 starters graduating from last year’s club, the preseason selection of 7th by the MAAC coaches seemed reasonable. But man, has Kevin Baggett’s club been tough this season. Winners of 10 in a row and in sole possession of first in the MAAC, the Broncs start 3 freshmen (all of whom redshirted for various reasons a season ago) and 2 sophomores. The engine that makes this club go is sophomore PG Stevie Jordan, an excellent table-setter who stuffs the stat sheet with averages of 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. Baggett surrounds him with an extremely athletic group of wing/forwards who can do a lot of different things, like Dimencio Vaughn and Frederick Scott, as well as an elite shooter in Jordan Allen. The scariest part? Rider will add 2 talented transfers to their ranks next season in addition to this core, with wing Ahmad Gilbert (Minnesota) and guard Jihar Williams (FIU) joining the fray. To me, they are the clear top dog in the MAAC right now and have a chacne to put together a special run if they hold onto all this talent.

Ball State: MAC

The Cardinals made headlines early this season with a stunning upset win over Notre Dame, and BSU should be here to stay as one of the top mid-majors in the country. 4 starters will return from this season’s club, including a pair of uber-talented juniors in point guard Taylor Persons and versatile big man Trey Moses. They’ll also bring back Tahjai Teague, an athletic forward that fits perfectly next to Moses. Combine that with the potential of the current freshman class (Ishmael El-Amin and Zach Gunn combined for 34 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists in a recent win over division leaders Toledo) and the potential for James Whitford’s club is endless going forward.

Northeastern: CAA

Beneficiaries of the one of the biggest breakout transfers in college basketball this season, Bill Coen and the Huskies are 12-4 in the CAA and very much in the picture for an NCAA Tournament berth. Vasa Pusica went from being a rotation guard on a bad San Diego team in the WCC to one of the most indispensable players in the CAA, averaging more than 17 points and 5 assists per game while shooting greater than 50% from the field and 40% from downtown. Combine him with solid core of sophomores in Shawn Occeus, Donnell Gresham, and Bolden Brace, as well as talented freshman big Tomas Murphy, and optimism about the future of this program. And let’s not forget about Jordan Roland, a combo guard who is sitting out this season after transferring from George Washington, where he averaged 7 points per game a season ago.

Hartford: America East

John Gallagher entered this season thought by many to be on the hot seat. Coming off 2 consecutive 20-loss campaigns, the Hawks were picked near the bottom of the A-East by nearly every preseason prognosticator. Now, the Hawks look like one of the top contenders, if not the favorite, for the A-East title next year, with a chance to really make noise in conference tournament play this season. The junior trio of PG JR Lynch, SG Jason Dunne, and PF John Carroll combines to average over 40 points per game, and fits extremely well together. In a recent win over Vermont, it was Dunne who lit it up, scoring 28 points in a monumental win for the Hawks and the Catamounts’ first conference loss in over 2 years. The loss of rim protector Hassan Atia will definitely hurt next season, but the pieces are in place for Gallagher and company to make some noise next season.

New Mexico: Mountain West

From the beginning, I loved the Paul Weir hire at New Mexico. I just didn’t realize how quickly his impact would be felt in Albuquerque, both on the court and on the recruiting trail. It’s easy to look ahead to 2018-19, when the Lobos will add transfers Vance Jackson (UConn), JaQuan Lyle (Ohio State), Carlton Bragg (Kansas/Arizona State), and Isaiah Maurice (Kansas State) along with 4-star PG Drue Drinnon, but UNM has been sneaky-good this season. Anthony Mathis has taken huge steps forward under Weir, while freshman wing Makuach Maluach has impressed this season and has limitless upside as he develops his skills and gets stronger. The Lobos have already proven their ability to compete with the Mountain West’s elite, taking both Nevada and Boise State to the wire in matchups earlier this season, so I wouldn’t be stunned to see the Lobos steal a bid to the Big Dance if they get hot at the right time.

CBB Central Podcast: Episode 1

Kevin Sweeney and Brad Cavallaro will be co-hosting the newest must-listen podcast in college basketball: the CBB Central Podcast. In episode 1, we share our vision for the podcast and talk bubble teams, Northwestern, overrated/underrated clubs, and break down Duke/UNC and UCLA/Arizona tomorrow.

Bubble Watch: Mid-Major Edition

By Kevin Sweeney

It’s early February, and that means it’s officially Bubble Watch season, a time in which my Twitter mentions are loaded with questions of whether a team has any chance of an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. While the list of mid-majors with legitimate at-large chances isn’t all that long, there are several teams with some intriguing resumes that will be very interesting to monitor over the coming weeks.

Atlantic 10:

LOCKS: Rhode Island

The Rams have dominated a down A10, sitting at 19-3 overall and 11-0 in conference play. They have some quality wins, no bad losses, and sit #6 in the RPI. Save an epic collapse down the stretch, Rhode Island will be dancing in March.

Bubble: Saint Bonaventure

The Bonnies don’t have the resume of an NCAA Tournament team at this point, though high-level wins over Syracuse and Maryland keep them in the conversation for now. However, 4 losses outside the top 100 of the RPI, including 2 outside the top 150, are resume-crushers. If they can win out (including a home game to Rhode Island) and lose to URI in the conference championship game, SBU might just sneak into the dance. However, their best chance remains to win the conference tournament.

Conference USA:

Bubble: Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee

Perhaps the most intriguing bubble teams come from the same conference, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee each have interesting resumes should they falter in the CUSA Tournament in March. Western Kentucky will have one of the best wins of any bubble team, with an early-season neutral site victory over likely #1 seed Purdue. However, as of now they have 2 losses to sub-200 RPI teams that could burst their bubble. A win at MTSU is imperative, and Marshall sneaking into the top 100 and UTSA getting into the top 200 would be helpful as well.

Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee has the opposite problem of WKU. They virtually have no bad losses, as if Marshall sneaks into the top 100 the Blue Raiders won’t have a loss outside the top 100. However, a lack of top-tier wins is evident, as Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are among the SEC’s worst and Western Kentucky is presently their only top 50 wins. A 10-1 road mark stands out to me, as does their #22 RPI and top-70 SOS, but the Blue Raiders are far from NCAA Tournament locks.

Bottom line is that neither can afford another bad loss if they have any hopes of an at-large bid. To me, MTSU is the league’s best chance at an at-large, but as we saw with their seeding last year despite a historic season, the margin of error is not large. As of now, I would put in MTSU as an at-large, while WKU would be on the outside looking in.

Missouri Valley:

Bubble: Loyola-Chicago

The Ramblers are a team that clearly pass the eye test for me, but their resume leaves a fair amount to be desired. A road win at Florida is a great starting point, but there isn’t a lot of meat on the bone otherwise. Another major hurdle is a head-to-head loss to another team I’ll mention later in Boise State, a game in which the Ramblers were trounced. That said, the Ramblers have lost just 1 game all season that starting guards Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson have played in, and a quick simulation on rpiforecast.com shows that the Ramblers could have an RPI in the 25-30 range if they were to win out and lose to a good opponent in the conference championship game. Still, I wouldn’t give Loyola much of a chance of an at-large bid.

 

Mountain West:

Bubble: Nevada, Boise State

I very much considered putting Nevada as a lock, but I decided there is just enough doubt with one more bad loss to keep them from lock territory. Should they not have a major slip-up, they should be fine, as the metrics like the Wolf Pack and a win over Rhode Island will look great come tournament time. But the resume isn’t deep, and a bad loss could haunt Nevada with their lack of quality wins.

As for Boise State, things are very much up in the air. On one hand, they have no bad losses. But wins over Oregon and Grand Canyon don’t look nearly as good as we thought they might, and there’s a real possibility the Broncos won’t have a top 50 win come March. A win over Nevada would absolutely move the needle, but they will continue to sit right near the cut line until Selection Sunday.

WAC:

Bubble: New Mexico State

A Diamond Head Classic win over Miami continues to make the Aggies’ resume look nice, and NMSU has steamrolled the WAC throughout conference play. However, if they do slip up in #WACVegas, they will be in an interesting position. How will the committee value the eye test and the continued dominance that the Aggies have displayed so far in conference play? Personally, I think they’d be the perfect team to send to the First Four if they falter in the conference tournament, but I’m not confident that the committee would reward a resume that otherwise lacks quality wins.

WCC:

Locks: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s

I’m fairly confident in putting both of these clubs into the NCAA Tournament as of now, though a bad loss or 2 could inject some doubt. Gonzaga has 4 top-50 wins, and Saint Mary’s has no losses if you forget that Thanksgiving weekend happened, where they fell to Georgia and Washington State at Wooden Legacy. Both teams are more than deserving to reach the NCAA Tournament, and should get in without too much trouble should they avoid a crushing loss to a lower-tier WCC team.

Loyola Continues MVC Ascension With Blowout Win over Missouri Stat

By Kevin Sweeney

The MVC has a clear top dog. Loyola dominated the preseason favorite Missouri State from the opening tip in a 97-75 victory Saturday afternoon at Gentile Arena. The Ramblers move to 19-5 on the season and 9-3 in MVC, with a 1 game lead in conference play. Here are 3 big things from this one:

Loyola is an elite offensive club:

The Ramblers shot a blistering 61% from the field in the game, putting 6 different players in double figures and had 24 assists on 39 made field goals. Porter Moser talked in his press conference about how he has emphasized “pace and space” in his recruiting and offensive style, and that has continued to come to fruition. Clayton Custer is the perfect man to cue up such an offense, as he posted his 3rd consecutive 20+ point game while adding 6 assists. “We really got out in transition and that got us rolling,” Marques Townes said postgame.

Home Court at Gentile Arena Continues to Improve:

“Why not us?” asked Porter Moser postgame in reference to bringing out huge crowds to Gentile Arena. “We want a major ticket problem”. The crowd was loud, with nearly 3,600 fans packing the arena for a “White-Out”. And those crowds seem to be helping the Ramblers as they come down the stretch of MVC play, as the Ramblers now lead the country in field goal percentage at home. With just 3 home games remaining for the Ramblers, Moser implored the fans and the City of Chicago to continue to come out and support the team as they try to win a MVC title.

Missouri State’s Struggles Continue:

It’s been a nightmare campaign for the preseason MVC favorites, and that continued this afternoon. The Bears have now lost 5 in a row and sit 5-7 in MVC play, a massive disappointment with this being the senior year for NBA prospect Alize Johnson (there were 13 NBA scouts in attendance for today’s game). Time is running out for MSU to turn things around, and if they don’t, Paul Lusk’s job could be in serious jeopardy. On a more positive note, Mustafa Lawrence had a breakout game for the Bears, posting 19 points and 3 steals on 5-9 from 3 despite coming into the game playing just 5 minutes a game. If he can build on that performance, it would be a major boost for Missouri State’s chances at Arch Madness next month.

Siena Wins Worst College Basketball Game Ever®️

By Kevin Sweeney

It was the worst collegiate basketball game I have ever watched.

Siena took down Saint Peter’s in triple overtime yesterday by a final score of 59-57. The game was tied at 40 at the end of regulation, tied at 45 after one OT, 50-all at the end of the second. The fact that a team gets to walk away with a win on their resume from that game almost seems unfair.

With Siena losing star guard Nico Clareth to a midseason transfer and without their 2 best off-ball scorers in Jordan Horn and Khalil Richard due to injuries, it was always going to be a struggle for the Saints to put the ball in the basket. To combine that with playing Saint Peter’s, a team that under John Dunne is known for grinding the tempo of games (347th in possessions per game this season) to a halt, was a recipe for a grind-it-out affair.

We knew it would be ugly.

We didn’t know it was possible to be that ugly.

The first half concluded with Saint Peter’s leading 24-16, as they roared out to a nice lead by shooting a blistering 39% from the field and 3-9 from 3. Meanwhile, Siena had double the number of turnovers than made field goals (10-5) and didn’t have a single player make more than 1 field goal in the half.

At that point, this was bigger than 1 game: many Saints fans began to sarcastically root for the Siena to beat the record for their lowest-scoring D1 game of 39. Whatever Jimmy Patsos said in the locker room must have worked, as Siena’s offense churned up to another level in the second. Saint Peter’s committed 7 fouls in the first 4 minutes of the second half, putting Siena in the bonus for the rest of the game. But the Saints went just 19-33 from the stripe in the second half and overtimes, including putrid showings from big man Prince Oduro (2-8) and wing Thomas Huerter (2-7). At one point, the teams combined to miss 6 straight free throws in the span of 3 seconds of game action. Take a look at this brutality:

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There’s a very real argument to be made for shutting a game down immediately when something like this happens.

Yet somehow in such an ugly affair, the game just found a way to be entertaining in its unpredictability. Whether it was the only 1 field goal made in the final 5:50 of regulation, the teams trading 5-0 runs to keep the score tied in the first overtime, a jump ball to end the second OT period, Prince Oduro traveling as soon as he caught a defensive rebound for Siena, or 2 consecutive shot clock violations by the Saints in the 3rd OT, the game was simply something to behold.

In the end though, a big bucket by sophomore wing Ahsante Shivers (14 points, 10 rebounds) gave Siena the lead late, and they held on at the buzzer to claim one of the strangest wins in CBB history.

Of course, the always-quotable Siena Head Coach Jimmy Patsos had plenty to say postgame, saying “I was glad we went three overtimes. Otherwise, we weren’t going to score 40 points, and I didn’t want that score flashing around the country,” per Mark Singelais of the Times Union.

And if you think watching that game took a toll on the fans, look at what it did to Patsos:

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That man is drenched.

To be honest, I’m not sure how to end this. After the watching that game, I sat around for about 15 minutes processing what I had just witnessed. The lowest-scoring 3OT game (by a wide margin of 21 points) since 2002, per Ken Pomeroy. The game didn’t cover the over even though they played 15 extra minutes! But it was more than that, it was an absolute mess of a basketball game. In fact, it was such a mess that my dorm room lost power. No one else’s did. Just mine. I’m convinced that this is not a coincidence.

Have a great day, and shield your eyes on February 25 when these teams match up again.

Seton Hall Handles DePaul on Delgado’s Record-Setting Night

By Kevin Sweeney

Entering Wintrust Arena today, Angel Delgado needed just 2 rebounds to become the Big East’s all-time leading rebounder.

He grabbed 19 of them, setting the tone for an 86-70 victory Sunday over DePaul as the Pirates got back on track in Big East play. Myles Powell led all scorers with 21 points, including some huge shots in the second half when DePaul tried to make things interesting.

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Angel Delgado and Seton Hall Head Coach Kevin Willard share a moment shortly after Delgado eclipsed Derrick Coleman’s Big East rebounding record. Photo by Kevin Sweeney/CBB Central

The first half was very much a half defined by runs. After Seton Hall ran out to a 19-8 lead in the early going, DePaul responded, as some excellent play from freshman PG Justin Roberts helped get the Blue Demons back within 23-21.

“His ability to put the ball in the basket is obvious,” DePaul head coach Dave Leitao said of Roberts. “My hope for him is as we turn the page from January to February that he can start shaking off what makes a young guy young.”

But with Roberts sidelined with 2 fouls, Seton Hall took advantage, going on a 23-6 extended run to seize full control of the game as the first half wound down. The Pirates got 19 points from their bench in the opening period, an area where the Pirates have struggled at times this season.

For much of the second half, it appeared that the Pirates would have no issue putting away the Blue Demons. But DePaul had one run left in them. Trailing 64-46 with 11:59 to go, DePaul went on a 12-2 run, cutting their deficit to just 8 and electrifying the crowd at Wintrust Arena. The run was sparked by Eli Cain, the talented junior guard who had struggled for much of the night, as he got a pair of buckets and connected on a beautiful assist to help get the Blue Demons going. But Powell was there with the answer, hitting a pair of big 3’s that helped ice the game for the Pirates.

Seton Hall’s ability to slow down Cain and DePaul’s leading scorer Max Strus was huge in the winning effort. Cain went for just 11 points on just 5-18 shooting, while Strus never really got involved in the game and was held to a very quiet 9 points on 4-9 shooting.

Leitao blamed his team’s lack of ball movement when discussing Strus’s quiet night, saying, “When you really move the ball and you attack, the balls ends up finding itself in good players hands.”

Seton Hall moves to 16-5 on the season and 5-3 in Big East play, earning a much-needed win after having losing 3 of their last 4 games. They will return home Wednesday to take on Providence.

DePaul falls to 9-12 on the season and 2-7 in Big East play. Tre’Darius McCallum led the way with 16 points and 6 rebounds for the Blue Demons, who will go on the road to take on Butler on Saturday.

CBB Central Mailbag: 1/27

By Kevin Sweeney

A loaded day in college basketball is upon us, and I decided there was no better way to start that than to answer some of your mailbag questions as we head down the stretch of college basketball season. Thanks to those of you who submitted questions and if your’s didn’t get answered send me a tweet and I will answer it in Twitter form! Here we go:

Conference USA has been absolutely awesome to watch this season. A lot of really talented teams at the top of the league have a chance to make noise if given the opportunity to, but the chances for a 2-bid CUSA will be hurt by my answer here: I believe the champ will have 3 or more losses. I just can’t see WKU, MTSU, or ODU, the league’s 3 one-loss teams, winning out until conference tournament time. Every team in the top 5 of the conference (MTSU, WKU, ODU, Marshall, UAB) will play each other at some point the rest of the season, and it would be a monumental achievement to sweep that set of games given how talented (and different stylistically) those 5 teams are.

Vermont hasn’t lost an America East game since February 8, 2016. This blog was started 5 days later. Yeah, Vermont has been THAT dominant. And despite being without superstar big man Anthony Lamb, the Catamounts’ streak may just run into the 2018-19 season. Becker is as good as any coach in the country at getting players to star in their role and putting a team together that plays to its strengths. Without Lamb, this team isn’t as talented as other top mid-majors, but I wouldn’t want to see UVM in March because I know Becker will have his team prepped and ready to go. As for his job prospects, I think UConn should absolutely give him a call if Kevin Ollie gets fired, and he’d be a slam dunk at Rhode Island if Danny Hurley were to take a bigger job this offseason. I also wouldn’t rule him out for an opening in Indiana or somewhere else in the midwest, as he has strong recruiting ties in that state.

Coaching is the biggest factor in my book. Obviously you need talent, but it’s very rare that the mid-major will have more talent than the Power 5 program. That said, from a roster construction standpoint, you need some veterans who have played a lot of basketball and know how to win. I think you need to be able to hit the 3 at a high level, but you can’t live and die by the 3 if you want to consistently win these battles. From a recruiting standpoint, you have to thrive on landing versatile kids; as many 6-3 to 6-7 athletes who can shoot and defend as you can. If you can assemble that, you then have more defensive options and the ability to create mismatches. It’s very rare to be able to gash a Power 5 school by having lots of good bigs. Spread them out, beat them in space, and trust your veterans to make plays late in games.

Full disclosure on this one for those who don’t follow me as regularly on Twitter: I am actually a student at Northwestern and have been to every home game this season except for the ones I was on break for. I even did some reporting on this exact story in the preseason for a class project.

From a pure wins-and-losses perspective, Northwestern has been perfectly fine at “home”, and their struggles away from Allstate Arena should be the story. But I think it goes beyond just wins and losses. Northwestern basketball drew an excitement from its students and a buzz across Evanston and the entire Chicagoland area last season. While excitement on campus was tempered due to the accessibility issues of Allstate Arena (about 45 minutes by student shuttle on a good day from Northwestern’s Evanston campus), it was still present early in the season. But as the season began to spiral downhill early, being able to go home to a rowdy home atmosphere and a high level of excitement and energy for every big home game would have been huge. Maybe it would have helped Northwestern get their “mojo” back, something I’ve mentioned a few times that the Wildcats have lacked this season.

That said, I don’t think Allstate Arena is the reason Scottie Lindsey regressed and became one of the most inefficient volume scorers in major conference basketball, or that the Wildcats have virtually no depth, or that they can’t defend in man-to-man against much of the Big Ten. Northwestern has shown signs of life, winning 2 in a row, but it will take a ton of work to even be in the discussion about the NCAA Tournament come March.

Staying in the Big Ten but pivoting to a team that has surprised in a good way this season, Tim Miles has done a really solid job making this Nebraska team competitive entering a year in which many thought he was a lame duck. Personally though, I don’t think that Nebraska has that strong a case for an NCAA Tournament bid. They have no Quadrant 1 wins and are very unlikely to even get a chance at one except maybe in the conference tournament. The RPI, KenPom, Haslametrics, and T-Rank all have the Huskers outside the top 50 in their rankings, and their only OOC win of note is a victory over a mediocre Boston College team, while losses to St. John’s and UCF look worse than they did at the time. The one thing in Nebraska’s favor is a favorable late schedule in the Big Ten, with 5 of their final 8 at home and none against the top 4 teams in the conference. If Nebraska can get to 12 conference wins and win at least 1 conference tournament game, they will be right in the thick of bubble talk come Selection Sunday.

https://twitter.com/GregGardner1/status/957007419971915776

The Mavericks have been a major disappointment this season, especially in conference play. Losses to CCU and Little Rock have helped anchor this team to just a 4-5 start in Sun Belt play. And while no one number tells the entire story for UTA’s struggles, we knew going into the season that this team would go as far as Kevin Hervey and Erick Neal would take it. While that senior dynamic duo has been far from bad, the margin of error is very slim with this team and without both playing excellent basketball, the Mavs are pretty average. Hervey’s shooting numbers across the board have dropped in conference play, and Neal, one of the best distributors in college basketball, is averaging under 6 assists per game in Sun Belt games after hovering around 10 apg for much of OOC play. That duo is special and will be very tough to beat in March, but right now things don’t look good for the Mavs as their “window” to Dance with Hervey and Neal still in Arlington is closing rapidly.

@MaceoBaller16 gets the last question(s) of the mailbag in. On Stanford, the big thing was getting healthy and their freshmen getting comfortable in college basketball. They’ve done just that with Dorian Pickens returning to action and Daejon Davis really stepping up lately as a freshman. Recently, they’ve just passed the eye test for me as an NCAA Tournament team, but that resume needs a ton of work after losses to 2 Big Sky schools, LBSU, and Cal. They probably need 13 or more Pac-12 wins to be in the at-large mix, and even that is tough. They will be a dangerous potential bid-thief though.

Mid-Season Mid-Major lineup is one of the most interesting questions I’ve gotten in awhile. Here’s what I’d build (these may not be the BEST at each position, but rather what pieces would fit together best).

  • PG: Emmett Naar (St. Mary’s)
  • SG: Kendrick Nunn (Oakland)
  • SF: Jemerrio Jones (NMSU)
  • PF: Nick King (MTSU)
  • C: Ajdin Penava (Marshall)
  • Coach: Steve Forbes (ETSU)

And finally, if I were to add a player to play with Trae Young, I’d either go with Marvin Bagley or Jevon Carter. Bagley and Young in a pick-and-roll? Watch out. And giving Oklahoma an elite perimeter defender (while also taking away his kryptonite) to go out and get stops late would be incredible.

Thanks as always for reading and enjoy a great Saturday of college basketball!