A Look Back: Preseason Projections

Today on the show, Brad and Kevin look back at their preseason projections and bets that they made preseason to see who came out on top. Plus, we update you on the latest transfer and coaching news and tell you whether or not they are declaring for the NBA Draft (sorry, it’s the wave).

Coaching Changes and Player Movement Breakdown Pod

On today’s episode, Brad and Kevin break down all the coaching change and transfer news of the last month that we haven’t gotten to on the pod due to NCAAT stuff, talking about the hires we liked and didn’t like, the transfers we are watching closest, and some NBA Draft decisions as well.

Championship Preview, Way-Too-Early Top 25

Today on the show, Brad and Kevin break down the thrilling Final Four action, preview the “unsexy” title game of Virginia vs Texas Tech, and then break down their way-too-early top 25’s for 2019-20. They each have a few teams they are very high on, but came to a consensus for the top four clubs.

South Florida Caps Historic Season With CBI Title

By Kevin Sweeney

“This is the start of something new.”

Those were the words of LaQuincy Rideau, moments after his South Florida Bulls clinched the CBI title with a 77-65 win over DePaul Friday night. The win capped a historic season for the USF program, setting a record for wins in a season and completing the largest win turnaround in the nation in year two under head coach Brian Gregory.

Gregory inherited a program that had hit rock bottom, having lost 20 games or more in four consecutive seasons. He quickly went to work rebuilding the roster that first offseason, and the players he landed then led this year’s team to new heights. The top four scorers on this year’s team came from that recruiting class in a trio of prep recruits in David Collins, Alexis Yetna, and Justin Brown along with Gardner-Webb transfer LaQuincy Rideau.

“Two years ago, we brought in this class without any evidence that we could win,” Gregory said, “This is a springboard [for us].”

Perhaps it’s only fitting that it was guys from that incoming class that played the biggest roles tonight. Specifically, it was Collins and Rideau that stepped up, just as they have all season long.

“As a sophomore and a junior, they are our leaders, our toughest kids,” Gregory said. “We were going to live and die with them.”

They certainly lived on that duo tonight. After a hot start that saw the Bulls open up a lead that ballooned to as many as 17 with 6:15 to go in the first half, DePaul went on a massive run keyed by their defense to close the half. USF did not score again until the final possession of the first half, and the Blue Demons used the free throw line to get back into the ball game. In all, it was a 14-0 run that ignited the rowdy home crowd and swung momentum squarely in favor of DePaul.

However, the Bulls were able to take back a little momentum with a tough layup by Rideau as the buzzer sounded to conclude the first half. That bucket pushed their lead to two possessions and ended the seemingly-endless scoring drought.

DePaul would cut continue to cut into the deficit in the early stages of the second half, and even had a chance to take the lead when Femi Olujobi went to the line with the Blue Demons trailing by one with 16:41 to go in the ballgame, but the senior big man missed both free throws to keep USF on top. The Bulls then went on a quick 6-0 run to push the lead back up to seven, and the score would never be within one possession again.

The Blue Demons continued to try to make a push, but just couldn’t string together enough buckets to turn the corner. Chief among those struggles was senior guard Max Strus, who shot just 2-16 from the field. Strus came into the game averaging 28 points per game in the tournament, but was suffocated defensively by Justin Brown and TJ Lang.

“You can’t give him anything easy, he’s so good,” Gregory said of Strus. “If you give him something easy, all the sudden the hard ones go in.”

Meanwhile, Collins sealed the deal with clutch bucket after clutch bucket down the stretch. The biggest dagger came with 5:47 to go in the contest, as Collins banked in a triple with the shot clock about to expire despite being fouled by Devin Gage. That shot gave South Florida a 13-point lead and dealt a huge blow to any comeback hopes for the Blue Demons.

Collins, who was named the tournament MVP, led the way for USF with 19 points. Brown posted 12, while Rideau stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points, five rebounds, five assists, and three steals.

Perhaps most importantly, all three of those players will return next year for the Bulls as they look to climb the American Conference ladder.

“We were 0-7 against the top four teams in the league,” Gregory said. Our job now is to take that next step.”

With a core like this in place and the experience from a deep postseason run, the program certainly looks to be on the right track in doing just that.

 

DePaul Forces Game 3 With Thrilling CBI Win Over South Florida

By Kevin Sweeney

DePaul went through most of the season with an eight-man rotation.

Just five of those players were left standing by the time the final buzzer sounded at McGrath-Phillips Arena Wednesday night.

First, starting point guard Devin Gage didn’t suit up due to a concussion.

Midway through the first half, star guard Eli Cain went down hard and appeared to injure his arm after being undercut on a rebound. He never left the locker room after suffering the injury.

Then late in the second, forward Jaylen Butz went down with an apparent shoulder injury.

That left behind just five: Lyrik Shreiner, Flynn Cameron, Max Strus, Paul Reed, and Femi Olujobi. The rest of the bench featured four players who have combined for 36 minutes of game action all season long.

“It was a war of attrition,” Dave Leitao said.

But thanks to the heroics of Reed and Strus, along with timely contributions from Shreiner and Cameron, five was all it took. The Blue Demons outlasted South Florida 100-96 in an overtime classic in game two of the best-of-three CBI Championship Series.

“Plain and simple, we won that for Eli,” Strus said. “We all love him and we had to do whatever it took to get that win.”

The lack of depth forced Leitao into some situations his team wasn’t accustomed to dealing with. Cameron played the most important minutes of his career, and the Blue Demons played zone most of the way with a 3-big lineup when Butz was on the floor.

“There were a lot of things we are doing now that we haven’t done all year long,” Leitao said. “We found a tremendous amount of resiliency throughout the game, particularly when they [USF] came back.”

Cameron’s contributions were particularly important. The freshman from New Zealand was composed under pressure, scoring nine points on 4-6 shooting without a turnover in a career-high 20 minutes of action. He scored a pair of buckets in overtime when being played out of necessity that helped the Blue Demons come away with a win.

Strus led the charge in the first half, exploding for 20 points on 6-8 from downtown. Meanwhile, after a hot start early, the Bulls struggled to find flow on the offensive end against the DePaul zone, turning the ball over nine times. Chief in those struggles was the play of USF’s usually-dynamic backcourt duo of David Collins and LaQuincy Rideau. The pair, which averages over 29 points per game on the season, posted a combined six points on 2-11 shooting with five turnovers in the first half. That allowed the Blue Demons to open up an 11-point lead going into the second half.

Rideau took matters into his own hands in the second period to will his team back into the game. The redshirt junior who began his career at Gardner-Webb was as dominant as they come as a floor general, going 5-5 from downtown in the second half while also dishing out five second-half assists. In total, Rideau finished with a career-high 35 points to go along with eight assists and five steals. Some of his best work was done setting up redshirt freshman Alexis Yetna, an impressive big man who posted one of the finest games of his young career with 26 points & 13 rebounds on 11-12 shooting. That duo’s eruption allowed the Bulls to chip away at the deficit, finally taking the lead on a dunk by Collins with 3:05 to go.

But DePaul was resilient, fighting back to take the lead before eventually seeing the game go to overtime. With the South Florida defense keying in on Strus, it was Reed that took over for the Blue Demons in the second half. The rising star sophomore finished with 28 points, 16 rebounds, three steals, and three blocks, absolutely dominating the game in the second half and overtime with his length and inside-outside game.

Reed & Shreiner

Paul Reed (left) high-fives Lyrik Shreiner (middle) in the second half. Reed posted 28 points and 16 rebounds in the victory. Photo by Kevin Sweeney/CBB Central

“He is growing right in front of our eyes into becoming a potentially tremendous college basketball player,” Leitao said. “We called a play late for him late, and he didn’t even get the ball. That was the only time today that we called his number. To get 28 and 16 and you’re not getting fed the ball  every other time down the court, it says a lot about his level of talent.”

After USF briefly took the lead to begin the extra session, DePaul quickly took over. The Blue Demons used a pair of 6-0 runs to gain some separation while the Bulls struggled to finish around the rim, extending their lead to eight with 43 seconds to play. Despite a technical foul assessed to Leitao that breathed some life into USF and allowed the Bulls to narrow the deficit to three on multiple occasions in the final minute, DePaul was able to hold on. Reed snatched a tough rebound and made one free throw with eight seconds to play to push the Blue Demon lead back to two possessions and ensure that DePaul would hold on.

Now, the two teams will face off one more time, with the winner cutting down the nets. For DePaul, it represents the chance to win 20 games in a season for the first time in more than a decade and send off Strus, Cain, and Olujobi on a high note. They’ll get the chance to do it in front of what should be a packed house at the program’s on-campus gym, where the team has played throughout this tournament rather than its typical home court at Wintrust Arena in downtown Chicago. Wednesday’s game saw a rowdy student section (a rarity at DePaul games at Wintrust due to the lengthy trip from campus) and an overall excellent atmosphere with very few empty seats in a tight, loud gym.

Meanwhile, it’s hard not to be impressed with the young core Brian Gregory has put together at USF. Yetna’s flashed tremendous potential as a do-it-all forward who should wreak havoc in the AAC moving forward, while Rideau and Collins are also slated to return next season. Coming off five straight 20+ loss seasons before setting a program record for wins in a season this year, the future is bright in Tampa. The Bulls could put a cherry on top of this season with a postseason championship Friday night.

Oats, Musselman Again Showing Difficulties of Mid-Major Life

By Kevin Sweeney

Two weeks ago, Nate Oats was talking about Buffalo being on the right track towards shedding the mid-major status.

“We’re not there yet. But we’re climbing in the right direction for sure,” Oats said in an interview with John Wawrow of the Associated Press before Buffalo’s NCAA Tournament game. against Arizona State.

The Bulls certainly didn’t look like a mid-major that night, absolutely dismantling the Sun Devils and former UB head coach Bobby Hurley in impressive fashion.

Shortly thereafter, Buffalo saw its season end in blowout fashion at the hands of Texas Tech. Despite that loss ending the careers of a trio of stars in CJ Massinburg, Nick Perkins, and Jeremy Harris, the future looked bright. Oats had plenty of talent in the pipeline, whether it be promising youngsters Jayvon Graves & Jeenathan Williams, transfers Antwain Johnson and Gabe Grant, or a loaded JUCO recruiting class that featured a pair of top-25 recruits. Furthermore, Oats signed a long-term contract extension during the MAC Tournament that would bump his salary to more than 800k per year. Buffalo had done everything to show Oats it was committed to building a power, and Oats had said all the right things about wanting to build something at UB.

Then, just like that, Oats was on a plane to Tuscaloosa as the new head coach at Alabama. The same Alabama school that has one NCAA Tournament win in the last decade, while Buffalo has two wins in the last two years under Oats.

Oats didn’t leave for a blue blood, but rather a football school with aging facilities. Even still, Alabama is without a doubt a better job than Buffalo, one with far more money in a better conference and higher upside.

It’s the latest clear statement that successful mid-major coaches leaving is a matter of when, not if.

Nate Oats wasn’t the elusive “next Mark Few”. Neither was Shaka Smart, Dan Hurley, Archie Miller, Steve Prohm, Kermit Davis, or any other hugely successful mid-major coach.

No mid-major can match the money, resources, and other advantages of the high-major level. Alabama basically tripled the record compensation package Buffalo had put together for Oats. How many of the Buffalo fans calling their former coach “Snake Oats” would turn down a job that tripled their salary and had higher prestige in their profession?

Despite the continued success of mid-major teams against the nation’s elite in the NCAA Tournament, inequality between the “haves” and “have nots” of college basketball has never been higher. TV revenue for the biggest conferences has continued to spike while mid-majors battle to balance a budget. Would Mark Few have stayed at Gonzaga in today’s climate? We may never know, but I do know the gap was larger now than it was then.

So as Nevada head coach Eric Musselman’s name continues to swirl as a “strong candidate” at Arkansas, no one should be surprised. Nevada has shown their commitment to building a power, putting together a reported $1 million per year package along with increased commitment through things such as increased charter flights, more staff members, and facilities upgrades. The Pack built about as talented a roster as is possible at the mid-major level this season, with high-profile transfers abound along with a 5-star recruit in Jordan Brown. Still, it wasn’t enough to put together a true national title contender, with Nevada folding down the stretch and seeing their season end in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Realistically, the ceiling is lower at Nevada than it is at Arkansas. How much better a roster can Musselman put together in Reno? It took him three years of relentless work to land Brown, the highest-profile recruit of his tenure so far. Now, he’s working to land Kyree Walker, another highly-touted prep product. That said, it’s much harder to sell an elite recruit on Nevada than it is on an SEC school like Arkansas. Throw in the bigger budget for recruiting, the huge fan support, the exposure an SEC school gets, and much more, and a place like Arkansas is clearly a better job than Nevada.

The only way to keep a coach like Musselman or Oats long-term is to even out the money (or at least get close– see what the Koch brothers are bankrolling for Gregg Marshall at Wichita State) AND to have a coach who wants to stay forever.

Both Buffalo and Nevada have done almost everything right. They have good athletic directors, supportive administrations, and boosters who have tried to step up. Unfortunately, it looks like neither could do quite enough.

That’s how it is at this level. Accept it.

Hope and pray you can find your Nate Oats, who elevates your program to new heights. Those NCAA Tournament wins and big-time regular season upsets over West Virginia and Syracuse brought Buffalo basketball into the spotlight in a way it had never been before. It likely brought in millions of dollars worth of media exposure for the school, and engaged a fanbase in ways never seen before at UB. Hope that finding your Nate Oats helps you land a higher level of candidate when your Nate Oats leaves, and that new coach continues to build your program up. Eventually, maybe you exit mid-major status like Butler or Xavier has. Even then, you might not be in the clear to keep your coach forever. But the goal has to be to continue to build.

Eric Musselman brought Nevada back from being at the bottom. His 4-year run brought the program new life. If he leaves for Arkansas, it isn’t a criticism of Nevada. It’s a fact of life at this level.