VCU Outlasts Middle Tennessee For Much-Needed Victory 

By Kevin Sweeney

VCU was in need of a big win tonight, and that’s just what they got. 

Taking on a very dangerous Middle Tennessee team on the fringes of the Top 25, the Rams were able to make enough plays down the stretch to send home a frenzied Siegel Center crowd happy with a 80-77 win over the Blue Raiders. More importantly, this win could provide VCU with a signature win in the non-conference slate, as MTSU is without a doubt the best win for the Rams so far this season. 

“I thought we played our best game.” VCU Head Coach Will Wade said postgame. They needed every bit of it to fend off the Blue Raiders, who had already knocked off Vanderbilt and Ole Miss this season after last year’s historic upset over Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament. 

It was a slow start for the typically potent MTSU offense, and VCU capitalized, running out to an early advantage. The Blue Raiders seemed rattled by VCU’s defensive pressure and the raucous road atmosphere, turning the ball over 6 times in the opening 7 minutes. In the meantime, the Rams began to heat up from beyond the arc, making 4 triples in the opening stages of the first half to take a 19-8 lead. MTSU’s experienced roster did not panic despite the early adversity, quickly getting back into the game with an extended 17-6 run led by junior guard Giddy Potts to tie the score at 27 with 6:26 to play in the half. Potts had 17 of his game-high 25 points in the first half, providing a huge boost with his sharp-shooting ability from downtown. VCU did win a psychological battle at the end of the half, as a layup by Samir Doughty in the closing seconds gave the Rams a 38-37 lead going into halftime. 

The game was incredibly tight throughout the second half, with neither team ever really able to snatch full control. A three by senior forward Reggie Upshaw gave the Blue Raiders a 51-46 lead just over 5 minutes into the half, but the Rams responded with an 8-0 run to regain the lead. As the game remained tight as it entered its closing stanza, the Rams looked to senior guard JeQuan Lewis to take over, and Lewis obliged. A Lewis 3 gave the Rams a 4 point lead with under 4 minutes to play, and a transition layup gave them a 6 point lead with just 75 seconds to play. However, MTSU never gave in, fighting back thanks in part to some missed free throws by VCU to earn a shot to tie the game in the closing moments. Unfortunately for the Blue Raiders, Potts’ deep triple clanged off the back iron before falling harmlessly to the floor, and VCU survived for the huge victory. 

Perhaps most impressive for VCU tonight was scoring 80 points against a usually-stout MTSU defense. 6th man Samir Doughty, who had 14 points on the game, played a huge role in the offense, playing point guard for some stretches while Lewis moved off the ball. 

Lewis led the way with 20 points for VCU, while Mo Alie-Cox added 15 points & Doughty posted 14. Potts had 25 points for MTSU, while JaCorey Williams posted 17 points and 14 rebounds and Upshaw contributed 15 points for the Blue Raiders. 

VCU returns to action Thursday for a home tilt with Louisiana-Monroe, while MTSU returns to Murfreesboro for a Wednesday matchup with Sun Belt contenders Georgia State. 

Hot Start Under Pikiell Continues For Rutgers With Win Over Fairleigh Dickinson

By Kevin Sweeney

The Steve Pikiell era has begun better than anyone could have ever hoped.

In his first season with the Scarlet Knights after a highly successful run at Stony Brook, Pikiell has now led Rutgers to a 10-1 record, its best start since 1975. Tonight’s win, an 82-69 triumph over NEC preseason favorites Fairleigh Dickinson, once again demonstrated how far the Scarlet Knights have come in Pikiell’s short time as head coach. 

Rutgers used a balanced scoring attack and good defense, a Pikiell staple, to comfortably knock off an FDU team with a potent offense and a lot of talent. 

In the opening half, the game was neck and neck, as pesky Fairleigh Dickinson had an answer for every Rutgers push for control. After a pair of runs by the Scarlet Knights pushed the home team to a 22-15 advantage, FDU responded with an 8-2 run to get back within one. However, Rutgers was able to use their size advantage down low to maintain a small lead, scoring 30 of the team’s 38 first half points in the paint. Redshirt junior forward Deshawn Freeman dominated the glass, posting 10 rebounds in the first half. After a Mike Holloway layup for FDU gave them a 32-30 lead with 4:07 to play in the half, Rutgers finished the half on an 8-0 run to take a 38-32 lead into halftime. 

The second half was when Rutgers began to gain separation. A layup by sophomore star Corey Sanders, who had 15 points in the game, gave the Scarlet Knights a 56-46 lead with 12:19 to play in the game. The game seemed to be getting out of control, but Fairleigh Dickinson continued to hang tough and gave the Scarlet Knights all they could handle. Rutgers continued to maintain control though, as Mike Williams gave them a huge boost with 11 second half points off the bench. 

Sparks flew as the game entered its final stretch, as Holloway was ejected with 4:36 to go in the game for hitting Freeman in the face while taking the ball to the basket. 

That did not change the momentum in the game. The Scarlet Knights carried a double-digit lead into the final media timeout and comfortably walked away with an 8th straight home win to start the season. 

Sanders and Williams finished with 15 points for the Scarlet Knights, while C.J. Gettys posted 12 points and 8 rebounds and Candido Sa had 11 points off the bench. Darian Anderson continued his strong play for Fairleigh Dickinson, as the NEC POY candidate posted 22 points. Holloway added 14 points and 8 rebounds for FDU. 

While it’s unclear whether Rutgers is truly an NCAA Tournament contender, the Rutgers team is clearly much more competitive than it was a season ago. They have an excellent chance of breaking the .500 mark for the first time since the 2005-2006 season. 

Fairleigh Dickinson continues to struggle, losing their 6th straight. However, they have played a difficult schedule and should be a top team in the MEAC once again. 

Where Would Niagara Be Without Transfers?

By Kevin Sweeney

If you are a college basketball fan, chances are your team has been hit with multiple transfers in the past few seasons.

We all know how common transfers have become in college basketball, and some have gone as far as to call it an epidemic. Last offseason, over 700 players transferred from D-1 schools, overtaking the record from the previous season.

Perhaps no program has been hit harder by transfers in the last 5 season than the Niagara Purple Eagles of the MAAC Conference. Ever since the departure of longtime head coach Joe Mihalich for Hofstra after the 2012-13 season, the turnover from year to year of the Niagara roster has been high.  An average of 6 players with eligibility remaining have departed the program per year since Mihalich left the program. This has made the rebuilding project for 4th year head coach Chris Casey very difficult, as he has assembled some talented players but has been unable to keep them in Buffalo for extended periods of time. In fact, it could be argued that there are 4 teams in college basketball, including 2 Atlantic 10 squads, whose best player came from Niagara. For fun, lets take a look at the roster Niagara could have if none of these guys had left the program:

Point Guard: Tahjere McCall (Tennessee State)- McCall is originally a Mihalich recruit who played 2 seasons with the Purple Eagles before departing after year 1 of the Casey era. Meanwhile, he’s blossomed into one of the best players in the Ohio Valley conference.  He’s a stat-sheet stuffer who excels at getting to the basket while being an excellent perimeter defender at the other end of the floor.  McCall has posted averages of 12.8 points, 6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.8 steals per game, and is a big reason why Tennessee State is off to its best start since moving to D-1 in 1977. He would undoubtedly be an excellent contributor for this Niagara team.

Backup: Kahlil Dukes (Niagara)- Dukes has been outstanding this season in his first season with Niagara, averaging over 15 points per game for the Purple Eagles. He would certainly see a lot of time off the bench.

Shooting Guard: Emile Blackman (Duquesne)- Blackman was the one of the first players to join the Purple Eagles after the departure of Mihalich, following Casey from LIU-Post. Despite beginning his career at the Division 2 level, Blackman immediately became the best scorer on the Purple Eagles once he became eligible in the 2014-15 season. After last season, he announced that he would graduate and transfer to Duquense for his final season of eligibility. He has thrived in his new home, leading the Dukes in scoring with 11.4 points per game. His athleticism and scoring ability would provide a huge boost to Niagara this season.

Backup: Wesley Myers (Maine)- This is a tough guy to keep on the bench, as Myers has averaged over 14 points per game in his first season at Maine following 2 seasons in Buffalo.  A good athlete with nice touch from beyond the arc, Myers would be a valuable commodity for the Purple Eagles.

Small Forward: Matt Scott (Niagara)- Scott is the only current Purple Eagle who would be starting for this squad. Scott’s development in his 3 years at Niagara has been incredible to watch, from averaging just 5 points per game as a freshman to now averaging almost 18 points and 7 rebounds per game as a junior. He has blossomed into perhaps the most complete player on this team, as his ability to rebound, guard multiple positions, and knock down jump shots is unmatched.  This is an all-MAAC caliber player who would definitely be a key cog for this hypothetical team.

Backup: Ramone Snowden (James Madison)- Snowden’s first season at James Madison hasn’t been real smooth, as he has averaged just 5 points per game after averaging over 10 points and 6 rebounds per game in his final season with the Purple Eagles. Nevertheless, Snowden is a versatile player who would be a nice bench option for Niagara.

Power Forward: Dominique Reid (Unaffiliated)- Reid’s story is a cautionary one for future players about making bad decisions. Reid burst onto the scene in his freshman season at Niagara and looked like a star in the making, making the MAAC All-Freshman team. However, he was arrested for grand larceny & identity theft following the season and was forced to leave the program. He spent last season at Polk State College (JUCO), but is not currently listed on the roster for the coming season. If not for Reid’s off-the-court troubles, he would likely be one of the stars of this team.

Backup: Marvin Prochet (Niagara)- Prochet, currently in his sophomore season for the Purple Eagles, would be solid bench big man. He brings a shot-blocking presence, with 1.4 blocks per game, while also having a nice touch from mid-range.

Center: T.J. Cline (Richmond)- Cline has been the most successful since transferring from Niagara following Mihalich’s departure.  After a solid freshman season for Niagara in 2012-13, Cline moved on to Richmond, where he has been a star. He has averaged double figures in scoring in each of his 3 seasons with the Spiders, and has a chance to average 20 points per game this season. His ability to step out and knock down threes while being one of the primary distributors (5.1 assists per game) is hard to find at the mid-major level. He would likely be the best big man in the MAAC, as he will likely contend for all-A10 honors this season.

Backup: Dominic Robb (Niagara)- Robb is a serviceable center who currently starts for the Purple Eagles.  A fierce competitor and good rebounder, Robb would be a good player to have coming off the bench.

How well would this team do? I think it would be the best mid-major in the country. The team has all the experience and talent necessary to make a deep run in March. The craziest part is that Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley, stars at Niagara before following Mihalich to Hofstra, finished their careers last season. With those two, it might be a top-25 level team.

Three Thoughts: Nevada Gets Signature Win Behind Marshall’s Heroics

By Kevin Sweeney

The Mountain West has looked like a one-bid league for much of this season, but Nevada made their case to be an at-large contender with a win over Washington and potential #1 overall pick Markelle Fultz Sunday night in Seattle. It was a wildly entertaining game that was tight throughout, but a buzzer-beating runner by graduate guard Marcus Marshall gave the Wolf Pack an 87-85 victory. It’s the fourth straight loss for the Huskies, who have struggled to find a supporting cast for Fultz. Here are my thoughts on what is a huge win for the Wolf Pack and another frustrating defeat for the Huskies:

1. Marcus Marshall is a Star– Coming into the season, one of the biggest questions for Nevada was Marshall, a transfer from Missouri State. He was tasked with replacing Marqueze Coleman, who had been a great player in his four years in Reno. Tonight, Marshall proved that he is more than up to the task of leading this Wolf Pack team. He posted 32 points and dominated the game at times in the second half, despite playing nearly the entire contest. He scored 9 of his team’s final 11 points of the game, including the aforementioned runner. Marshall might be the best player not just on Nevada, but in the entire Mountain West.
2. The Wolf Pack are the most complete team in the Mountain West– With San Diego State’s recent struggles, I was starting to believe that the Nevada was the best team in the MWC. I’m sold on that now. They are well-coached, as Eric Musselman has done a fantastic job in his short time in Reno. Even without Elijah Foster, who has been suspended indefinitely, there is plenty of talent on the roster, and the team simply does things that winning teams do. They fought back from early struggles to take control of the game early in the second half, and did not fold when Washington made their run to tie the game after the Wolf Pack had taken an 11 point lead. And, they played much of the second half without star forward Cameron Oliver, who fought foul trouble. Nevada has an excellent chance of being 11-2 going into conference play, which would put them in excellent position for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth.
3. Washington should not panic– While it has certainly be a frustrating start to the season for the Huskies, tonight was definitely a step in the right direction. The Huskies finally had a true supporting cast step up around the freshman sensation Fultz, with David Crisp posting 21 points, Matisse Thybulle contributing 12, and Carlos Johnson adding 13 points off the bench. This is an inexperienced but talented Huskies team, and one that should be very dangerous in Pac-12 play once all the pieces get put together. The schedule lightens up for the Huskies in the coming weeks, which should provide them with some valuable experience and confidence going into conference play.

Washington’s 30 Helps Iona to a Thrilling Win Over Ohio

By Kevin Sweeney

On November 25, I tweeted this on Iona star big man Jordan Washington:

I wondered what type of numbers the incredibly talented Washington could put up if he stayed out of foul trouble.
Tonight, we saw what he’s capable of, and the rest of the MAAC should be scared of it becoming a common occurrence.
Washington posted 30 points in a career-high 32 minutes and carried Iona to a huge home win over MAC contender Ohio at Hynes Center in New Rochelle, NY. Iona moves to 6-3 (1-1 MAAC) with the win.
Much of the first half for the Gaels looked like their home opener last Sunday against Niagara. The potent offense that has been a staple of the Tim Cluess era was struggling once again, and the Gaels fell behind by double-digits in the early stages of the half. A deep triple from Ohio’s Jaaron Simmons gave the Bobcats a 16-4 lead with 13:01 to play in the half. Meanwhile, Washington was the only player for the Gaels who could get anything going on offense, as he was the only Gael to score until a Ricky McGill layup almost 9 minutes into the game. As the half wore on, the tempo picked up and Iona got their flow offensively, cutting into the deficit by hitting 4 threes in the final 8:38 of the half. However, Ohio was able to hold onto the lead going into the break, leading 40-34 at halftime. Antonio Campbell was the difference-maker for the Bobcats, scoring 12 points on 6-7 shooting. However, foul trouble would plague Campbell in the second half, thanks in no part to Washington’s persistent work down low.
In many ways, the second half was the Jan Svandrlik coming-out party. Svandrlik, who had scored just 5 points all season coming into today’s contest, scored 16 points, including 4 threes, in the second half. It was a triple from Svandrlik that gave the Gaels their first lead of the contest, 57-56 with 11:56 to play in the game. The game remained incredibly tight throughout the second half, but Svandrlik was no doubt the difference. After a mini 6-1 run gave Ohio a 70-65 lead, Svandrlik made threes on back-to-back possessions to start a 10-0 run that turned a 5 point deficit into a 5 point lead for the Gaels.
Ohio fought back and tied the game at 75 with a pair of free throws by Jordan Dartis, but in closing moments, Iona freshman E.J. Crawford took over. First, he made a nice move on the perimeter to draw a foul, where he made one out of two to give Iona a 76-75 lead with 1:23 to play. Then, Crawford finished a tough and-1 layup with less than 20 seconds to play that gave the Gaels a four-point lead they would not relinquish.
Svandrlik finished with 19 points and 5 rebounds for Iona, while Crawford had 15 and
McGill had a career-high 12 assists. Simmons had 22 for the Bobcats, while Campbell had 16 and 9 boards in the game.
Next up for Iona is a home matchup with NJIT on Thursday night. The 5-2 Bobcats return home for a Thursday test against Milwaukee.

Middle Tennessee Throttles Vanderbilt to Continue Winning Ways

By Kevin Sweeney

Last year, Middle Tennessee State took the college basketball world by surprise. They had been hidden in UAB’s shadow in Conference-USA, and were given virtually no chance to beat Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament.

After the thrilling upset, no one has overlooked the Blue Raiders. It hasn’t mattered.

Middle Tennessee beat another Power 5 foe tonight, this time dominating Vanderbilt to move to 9-1 on the young season. Giddy Potts’ 27 points and 9 rebounds led the way for the Blue Raiders.

It was an ugly start to the game for both teams, as neither side could establish much flow offensively. The Commodores were completely shut down, going almost 9 minutes without a field goal in the early stages of the half. However, Middle Tennessee was unable to get much separation thanks to some stingy defense by Vanderbilt, scoring just 21 points in the opening 15:24 of the half. The only player who could get anything going was Potts, who scored 15 of the Raiders’ 31 first half points. Potts knocked down 3 triples in the first half, a huge boost for an MTSU team that struggled with the shot in the first half.

The second half was when Middle Tennessee took full control. They quickly extended a 16-point lead in the opening 4 minutes of the second half, and never allowed that lead to shrink below double digits the rest of the way. The Blue Raiders continued to play excellent defense, especially on Commodore 7-footer Luke Kornet. Kornet, who was averaging over 13 points per game coming into the game, was held to just 8 points in the contest. Meanwhile, the rout was on, as the Blue Raider lead ballooned to as many as 26 during the second half.

In addition to Potts’ huge night, Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams each had strong games. Upshaw had 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists, while Williams posted a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Middle Tennessee continues to build a strong resume and have put themselves squarely into contention for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. The trio of Potts, Reggie Upshaw, and JaCorey Williams can matchup with anyone in the country, and might be the best trio in mid-major basketball.

Vanderbilt’s early-season struggles under first year head coach Bryce Drew continue. The Commodores fall to 5-5 with the loss tonight, and still have two difficult games left in the non-conference slate, including a trip to Dayton.

Top 10 Mid-Major Backcourts

By Kevin Sweeney

Great guard play is essential for a mid-major with aspirations of making a deep run into March.  Since it is so difficult for mid-majors to find high-quality big men on the recruiting trail, coaches usually look to develop their team around a strong, deep backcourt. Let’s take a look at some of the best guard units in all of mid-major basketball:

  1. St. Bonaventure- If Steph Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors are the “Splash Brothers”, the Bonnies’ starting backcourt of CCSU transfer Matt Mobley and Jaylen Adams should be called the “Splash Sons”. Both guys make over 3 triples per game and feature limitless range from beyond the arc. However, Adams and Mobley aren’t just shooters. They both are excellent at getting to the basket and getting their teammates involved.  The tandem combines to average 44.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 9.1 assists per game. Saint Bonaventure has a chance to compete for an A-10 Championship, and Adams & Mobley are the biggest reason why.
  2. Fort Wayne- The Mastodons certainly aren’t flying under the radar anymore after beating Indiana in late November. Fort Wayne starts four guards, and all of them average double figures. Leading the way is Summit League Player of the Year candidate Mo Evans with 18.8 points and 6 assists per game, but the glue that holds this unit together is sophomore John Konchar. Konchar was huge in the game against the Hoosiers, playing every minute of the game and posting a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds.  Bryson Scott, the junior transfer from Purdue, also contributes over 15 points per game, while Kason Harrell averages just over 10 for the Mastodons.
  3. Central Michigan- It may be one of the shortest backcourts in the country, but there is no doubt that the Chippewas’s guard unit is one of the best.  They are led by a pair of 5-9 guards in Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson. Keene is the nation’s leading scorer, with his 31.4 points per game an incredible 6 points per game more than any other player. Last night against Green Bay, Keene posted 40 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds in one of the best performances by a mid-major player in recent memory. Rayson has been no slouch either, averaging 17.6 ppg. The Chippewas are certainly reaping the benefits of Rayson and Keene’s huge seasons, as they are 8-2 despite being picked last in the MAC West division before the season.
  4. UNC-Wilmington- In order to play in a system that likes to get up and down the floor & force turnovers, you need a deep, athletic backcourt. Kevin Keatts’ Seahawks certainly have that, and have been able to force over 17 turnovers per game as a result. The star of the group is senior Chris Flemmings, who walked on last season after transferring from D-2 Barton College before leading the Seahawks in scoring. He’s off to a strong start to the season, posting averages of 19.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.  Flemmings is one of 6 guards that averages at least 19 minutes per game for the Seahawks, with guys like sophomore C.J. Bryce and senior Denzel Ingram among thoseplaying key roles. Thanks to these guards, the Seahawks are the favorites to win the CAA for a second consecutive season.
  5. Monmouth- Last season’s national darlings for their upset wins and choreographed dance routines, the Hawks bring back every major backcourt contributor for the 2016-17 season.  We all know the exploits of diminutive point guard and defending MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson, but this unit goes far beyond Robinson. There’s defending MAAC Rookie of the Year Micah Seaborn and Oklahoma transfer Je’Lon Hornbeak, each of whom are outstanding shooters and perimeter defenders. When this team starts stroking it from downtown, they are impossible to stop, and that’s thanks to guys like Robinson, Seaborn, and Hornbeak , who each have hit 39% from 3-point land this season. Austin Tilghman and Josh James also provide toughness and leadership for this Hawks team.
  6. Rice- If you are looking for star power in a guard unit, then you will love this Rice team. Leading the way is sophomore sensation Marcus Evans, one of the best players in the country. He’s averaging over 23 points per game for the Owls and has developed as a point guard this season, recently setting his career high with 8 assists against Houston Baptist. Egor Koulechov, a wing player who has been deployed as a small-ball 4 at times, has also been fantastic, averaging 19.1 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting over 50% from beyond the arc. Koulechov’s versatility is incredibly valuable for the Owls. Mike Rhoades seems to have turned the corner in his rebuild of this Rice program, and with these two guys in tow, the future is bright.
  7.  NJIT- Jim Engles brought this NJIT program to unprecedented successes, and former Engles assistant Brian Kennedy has stepped in and continued to the program’s success thus far this season. Damon Lynn, a senior guard who is the program’s D-1 all-time scoring leader, is one of the most prolific shooters in all of college basketball. He’s on his way to being a 2,000 point scorer, and could potentially reach 500 career made 3-point goals for his career. Behind Lynn, Tim Coleman is a great second option who rebounds extremely well, while Ron Ukawuba is also a steady contributor. That senior trio is a big reason why the Highlanders have a chance for their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance this season.
  8. Grand Canyon- There is as much talent in this Antelope backcourt as any in mid-major basketball, but there has been one problem: It hasn’t been at full strength yet this season. Point guard DeWayne Russell has averaged almost 28 ppg this season, but missed the first 2 games with a NCAA suspension. Joshua Braun, who was perhaps the favorite for WAC POY entering the season, has battled a knee injury for much of the season. If that duo can come together, the Antelopes could have a very special season.
  9. Florida Gulf Coast- The addition of UCF transfer Brandon Goodwin has put a good guard unit over the top. “Dunk City”‘s guards are athletic, quick, and experienced, and are a big reason why the Eagles nearly upset Michigan State and Baylor early this season. Goodwin is one of 3 guards averaging in double figures for FGCU, recording over 15 points per game. Zach Johnson has also been excellent, averaging 14 points per game.
  10. Murray State- The Racers are no strangers to excellent guard play, having produced current NBA point guards Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne. Once again, Murray State has a strong group of guards leading the charge.  Tulane transfer Jonathan Stark has been as good as advertised, averaging over 22 points per game for the Racers. Meanwhile, veterans Bryce Jones and Damarcus Croaker are both key contributors for the Racers. Stark has quickly entered discussion for Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, and the Racers look to be contenders once again in the OVC.