Makai Mason To Play One More Year at Yale

By Kevin Sweeney

One of the Ivy League’s biggest stars is returning for one more season.

Yale point guard Makai Mason is expected to return to the team for the 2017-18 season before utilizing the NCAA’s graduate transfer rules to use his final year of eligibility, according to Jon Rothstein of FanRag Sports. Mason has missed all of the 2016-17 season due to a foot injury suffered in a closed scrimmage shortly before the season began.

Due to the Ivy League’s strict rules that force athletes to use their 4 years of eligibility in 4 years rather than the standard 5, it was unclear how Mason would treat his season without basketball. Had he left Yale to rehab, similar to what Ivy League stars Siyani Chambers and Alex Rosenberg have done in recent years, he could have maintained the ability to play all 4 years of his eligibility at Yale.

Another option was that Mason could potentially finish his degree early and transfer to another school without penalty, leaving him with 2 years of eligibility remaining.

However, it appears that Mason will spend one more season in New Haven before finding a new home for his final season of college basketball.

Mason is best known for his 31 point performance in last season’s NCAA Tournament, where he led the Bulldogs to an upset win over Baylor in the first round before falling to Duke in the second round.

Should Mason return to his pre-injury form, he will likely be one of the frontrunners for Ivy League Player of the Year honors, having averaged 16 points per game in his sophomore season. The Bulldogs should return 4 of their top 5 scorers for next season, making them perhaps the early favorites in the Ivy League.

Robinson Lights Up Albany as Monmouth Pulls Away Late Against Siena

By Kevin Sweeney

Winning 11 straight games wasn’t enough for Monmouth fans. The Hawk faithful had been frustrated by some lackluster performances of late, including a few close calls against lower-tier MAAC teams. 

The 12th win in the streak came with much more style. 

Justin Robinson lit up Siena for a career-high 40 points, and the Hawks pulled away late for a 102-82 victory on the same floor they hope to be playing on 3 weeks from today in the MAAC Championship game. 

The game was tight and very exciting for most of the night, yet that will likely be overshadowed by the final score. 

The Saints hung right with the Hawks throughout the first half, using 17 first half points from Marquis Wright to stay within one at the break. Siena closed the half on a 15-7 run, capped by a 3 by Wright to draw within 47-46 in the final seconds. The momentum seemed to grow for the Saints in the first half when Robinson left the floor for around 5 minutes at the 7:33 mark in the half. Monmouth lost their flow offensively, while Siena chipped away with what was a 10 point Hawk lead. Despite the slim lead, Monmouth had to feel pretty good about themselves at halftime. They were shooting 6-12 from 3, had forced turnovers, and were even winning the rebounding margin, which were all keys if they wanted to escape Albany with a win. 

Wright, who exploded for a career-high 36 points in the game, did everything he push the Saints ahead in the opening stages of the second half. He scored 11 points, including three triples, in less than 5 minutes to start the half and push the Saints to a 59-57 advantage at the first media timeout of the second half. The momentum was with Siena, and the crowd was fired up. 

However, the Hawks did what good, senior-laden teams do and responded to adversity, using a 15-1 run to quiet the crowd and take a 12 point lead halfway through the second half. As Robinson heated up, Wright was slowed down, as Monmouth Head Coach King Rice switched the bigger Micah Seaborn onto Wright. 

Robinson, the cousin of former Siena star Tay Fisher, continued to sink the Saints each time they tried to draw closer. With Saints hanging tough with 3 minutes to go, Robinson sunk a dagger 4-point play to extend the Monmouth lead to 16. From there, things were mostly procedural, with Siena emptying their bench a minute later. 

While Siena expected to dominate inside, that really wasn’t the case tonight. The Saints were outscored 44-24 in the paint, and 2 of the 3 Siena bigs, Lavon Long and Brett Bisping, were held to just 13 points and 8 rebounds combined. 

“Lavon and Brett have to play better if we’re going to beat Monmouth.” Siena Head Coach Jimmy Patsos said, per Mark Singelais/Twitter.  

The win all but seals a MAAC regular season title for the Hawks, who improve to 22-5, 14-2 in the MAAC. Je’Lon Hornbeak posted 18 points, while Austin Tilghman added 11 points off the bench. 

Siena fell to 12-15 overall, 9-7 in the MAAC. It’s the third straight home loss for the Saints, who have won 4 straight on the road. That’s certainly a strange trend, considering Siena lost its first 10 road games this season while starting 7-1 at home. 

Huge Late Run Pushes Grand Canyon Past New Mexico State

By Kevin Sweeney

We all know how much of an advantage having your home crowd behind you can be. A raucous home crowd can give a team enough energy to make the critical run to win the game.

That was certainly the case tonight at GCU Arena, where a sold-out crowd nearly entirely clad in white seemed to provide the energy necessary for Grand Canyon to go on a 19-0 run late in the second half to knock off New Mexico State 83-71 on Saturday night. DeWayne Russell led the Lopes with 31 points and 7 assists.

With Grand Canyon ineligible for the NCAA Tournament or the NIT as they conclude their 4-year transition period to full Division 1 status, tonight’s game against an NMSU team that recently won 20 straight games was like the Lopes’ Super Bowl. The atmosphere certainly lived up to that, as students were seen camped out in tents days before the game to get their tickets, a picture we typically see for games of the magnitude of Duke-UNC.

After getting blitzed out of the gate in the season’s first meeting between the two sides, Grand Canyon made it clear from the outset that they were ready to play. An early 8-0 run by the Lopes gave GCU a 22-13 lead with 9:14 to go in the first half. However, the Aggies, who were playing with a chip on their shoulder after Thursday’s loss to Cal-Bakersfield, responded well, fighting back with a 14-0 run late in the half to retake the lead.

For much of the second half, it looked like NMSU would be able to escape Phoenix with a huge win, as the Aggie lead ballooned to as much as 10 in the second half as NMSU drained three triples in the span of just over a minute and a half.

With 8:33 to go, New Mexico State led 65-57 and seemed to have the momentum on their side. They didn’t score again until there was less than a minute to play in the game.

While the Aggies seemed to tire down the stretch, the Lopes’ energy and confidence grew with every made basket, and the building got a little louder each time GCU drew closer. It was the leaders of the GCU team who carried the load down the stretch, with Russell and redshirt junior Joshua Braun (16 points) making big shot after big shot during the decisive 19-0 run. It was Braun’s contested three with just under 4 minutes to go that gave the Lopes the lead for good at 68-65.

The Aggies just couldn’t halt the GCU run until it was too late. By the time NMSU scored again, the Lopes were up by double digits with under a minute to go, and the NMSU faithful were left wondering “What happened?”.

The win is arguably the biggest of the season for the Lopes, who are now 17-9, 6-3 in the WAC. It positions GCU for a second straight 20 win season, an incredible feat for a school in just its 4th season in Division 1.

Ian Baker led NMSU with 19 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. Eli Chuha added 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Aggies. The loss leaves New Mexico State in need of a Cal-Bakersfield loss in order to take the top seed in the WAC Tournament and claim the league’s automatic NIT bid, should they falter in the conference tournament.

Teague’s Massive Plays Leads UNC-Asheville Past Winthrop

By Kevin Sweeney

We knew coming into tonight’s matchup between UNC-Asheville and Winthrop would have first place on the line. 

What we didn’t know was that we’d witness a changing of the guard for star of the Big South. 

Winthrop senior guard Keon Johnson, nearing 2,000 career points, was dominant down the stretch and in both overtimes, but UNC-Asheville freshman MaCio Teague matched him play-for-play in the closing moments to help seal a 104-101 victory in double overtime for the Bulldogs. 

Johnson came into the game with some demons to overcome, having scored just 10 points on 2-27 from the field in his last two meetings the Bulldogs. That all changed tonight though, as Johnson poured in 40 points. That makes 79 points in the last 2 games for Johnson, who posted 39 points Saturday against Campbell. 

However, Teague played with maturity beyond his years and a fearless mindset throughout. With the Bulldogs down by 3 with 5.5 seconds to go in regulation, Teague dribbled down the floor and drained a 30-footer to tie the game as time expired. Then, in the second overtime period, Teague finished through contact and made the subsequent free throw to give UNCA the lead with just 23 seconds to play. At the other end, he blocked a fallaway three by Johnson with the clock running down. Raekwon Miller grabbed the rebound and was fouled with a second to play, and Kimmel Arena erupted. The Bulldogs were now in the drivers seat to win the Big South regular season title!

Early on, things just didn’t seem to be going UNC-Asheville’s way. Despite seemingly outplaying the Eagles, they trailed by 1 at the half due to the outstanding play of Winthrop senior forward Xavier Cooks. Cooks had 13 points, having his way offensively when guarded by the shorter Ahmad Thomas. 

Winthrop maintained their lead for much of the second half, though the teams were separated by one possession for much of the second half. With four minutes to play, the Eagles led by 6 and the Bulldogs were most definitely on the ropes. But the Bulldogs responded with a 9-0 run to take the lead with 1:39 to play. Johnson brought the Eagles back, with a layup and then a high-arcing three with 24 seconds to play. The Bulldogs’ David Robertson was fouled Cooks shooting a 3 with 8 seconds to play, fouling Cooks out of the game. Robertson made the first 2 free throws, but after a timeout by Winthrop, he missed the third to leave the Bulldogs down 75-74. After a pair of free throws by Johnson, Teague made his buzzer-beating three to send the game to overtime. 

Johnson’s 40 points was a career-high for the Eagles, and Cooks posted 20. Twin brothers Bjorn and Anders Broman had 12 and 10 points respectively. 

After just 2 first-half points, Thomas had 26 points and 10 rebounds for the Bulldogs, while Teague posted 24. Will Weeks had a double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds.  

UNC-Asheville (19-7, 11-2) returns to action Saturday at Longwood as they look to extend their winning streak to 8 games. Winthrop (18-6, 9-3) will try to rebound Saturday versus Gardner-Webb. 

Do Conference Tournament Locations Make A Difference?

By Kevin Sweeney

Over the past few years, there has been more and more discussion about our current conference tournament system. Many have debated whether tournaments should be moved to the “campus site” system, in which teams play conference tournament games at the home of the higher seed in order to maximize home court advantage.

For mid-major conferences, this solution makes sense in many ways. For one, playing games at a neutral site often 3 hours away from most of the colleges participating seems to make very little sense. An example of this would be the Sun Belt Tournament, played in New Orleans. In 2015, the tournament drew a total attendance of 5,418 for the 7 games played, and I’m sure much of that had to do with the fact that only 2 of the 8 participating teams were within a 3 hour drive to the arena.

Others suggest that the conference tournament be played entirely at one team’s home facility, a strategy that was deployed by the MAAC, Big South, and Mountain West last season (the Big East Tournament was played at MSG, where St. John’s plays 6 games per year). This strategy solves the problem of lack of interest, but can provide a home-court advantage to a team regardless of their seed, such as when 2-seed Fresno State had to play 7-seed UNLV at the Thomas and Mack Center last season, or when top-seeded Iona was forced to play 8th-seeded Siena at the Times Union Center in 2015.

However, the campus site system is not without its flaws. For one, coordinating team transportation, practice spaces, and lodging, as well as referee assignments, on often just 2-3 days notice can be very difficult to handle. Also, playing a tournament on campus sites doesn’t provide the tournament experience that fans love. While campus site conference tournaments bring a true college feel to the game since students are able to come out in droves, the issues make it very difficult to implement unless the conference’s teams are all very close geographically. It would be a nightmare in the Summit League if on two days notice, IPFW had to somehow get from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Tulsa, Oklahoma to take on Oral Roberts. In order to make it worthwhile to play conference tournaments at campus sites, the numbers would have to show a staggering impact of playing the conference tournament on the higher seed’s home floor.

I examined every conference tournament game in every conference from the past 5 seasons (1,364 games in all) to see if there is a difference in the winning percentage for teams playing on their home floor compared to teams who are simply the higher seed on a neutral floor. Teams playing on their home floor went 138-62, a winning percentage of .690. In simple neutral-site games, which include “home-team” conference tournaments between two neutral sides, the higher seed went 829-335, a winning percentage of .713. Those numbers seem to suggest no real correlation between home court advantage and winning conference tournament games, though the home floor winning percentage is slightly deflated by lower seeded teams being the home team in some cases.

In addition, the last few seasons have been littered with examples of teams losing in the conference championship game despite it being on their home turf. In fact, teams playing on their home court in the conference championship game have gone just 17-15 in the past 5 seasons.

While these numbers do not allow for a team having a “home-court advantage” simply based on proximity to the venue (UAB plays its conference tournament in Birmingham), they do suggest that the higher seeded team will likely win, at home, on the road, or at a neutral site.

So as mid-major leagues look for creative ways to ensure that their top teams are the one to reach the NCAA Tournament, it appears that they will need to look further than the campus site system. Maybe that solution is switching to double elimination, an idea proposed by the Horizon League for its 2014-15 tournament. However, the NCAA allegedly nixed those plans. While a double elimination tournament might take some of the magic out of March, it would certainly give the best teams a much better chance of claiming their conference’s auto-bid.

 

 

Nico Clareth Returns to Siena Basketball Team

By Kevin Sweeney

The swag is back for the Siena Saints.

According to Jaden Daly of @DalyDoseofHoops on Twitter, sophomore guard Nico Clareth is expected to rejoin the team for tonight’s game at Iona, returning from a leave of absence that was announced on January 16.

Clareth burst onto the scene as a freshman last season, setting the Siena freshman scoring record and being named MAAC 6th Man of the Year. Nicknamed “Swaggy Neek”, Clareth immediately endeared himself to the Siena faithful with his high-flying dunks and dabs after made 3’s.

However, the beginning of his sophomore campaign was nightmarish, as Clareth struggled with his recovery from offseason knee surgery and was suspended for 3 games for an unspecified violation of team rules. Things came to a T in early January, as Siena Head Coach Jimmy Patsos played Clareth just 3 minutes in a win over Quinnipiac, and later stated that Clareth didn’t seem to be “all in” in the game. Clareth hasn’t played since.

Clareth’s return could change the complexion of the MAAC title race, as he will provide some much-needed shooting for a team that ranks near the bottom of Division 1 in 3-point shooting. With the MAAC Tournament in Albany, Siena will certainly be a tough out.

Clareth’s impact was immediately felt Tuesday night, when played 24 minutes and posted 14 points & 8 rebounds off the bench in a win over Iona. It was arguably the Saints’ best performance of the year. Clareth brought energy and intensity to the table, without the crazy shots and antics that frustrated the Saints for much of this season.

“We don’t ever cast our family members aside, ever,” Patsos said after the game on Clareth’s return. “We might be mad at our family members, but we never cast them aside.”

Hughes’ Late-Game Heroics Leads Georgia Southern to Big Sun Belt Victory Over Lousiana-Lafayette 

By Kevin Sweeney

Most mid-major fans are fully aware of Georgia Southern’s high-scoring guard duo of Ike Smith and Tookie Brown. After all, the pair combines to average 37.8 points per game, the highest of any duo in the Sun Belt. 

Tonight, junior guard Mike Hughes made it clear that there’s a strong third in the Eagle backcourt, scoring a game-high 20 points and keying a late-game sequence that gave Georgia Southern the lead for good in a 74-70 win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Tuesday night. The win helps the Eagles keep pace with Georgia State and Arkansas State at the top of the Sun Belt. 

The Eagles flew out of the gates, using 10-3 and 9-0 runs in the opening 11 minutes to take an early 22-8 advantage. Georgia Southern maintained a double-digit lead for most of the first half, leading by as much as 15, but a late run by the Ragin’ Cajuns swung the momentum in the game. 

In the final 2:43 of the first half, Louisiana-Lafayette outscored the Eagles 15-2, including a pair of technical free throws after Smith was T’d up with 1:09 to play in the half. After the Eagles had led by 10 or more for over half of the opening period, their lead had been shaved to just 40-38 as the teams headed to intermission. 

The positive momentum continued for the Ragin’ Cajuns when the second half began, as senior Jay Wright, who had 17 points in the game, drained a triple on the team’s first offensive possession of the half to give ULL its first lead of the game. They would maintain that advantage for all but 38 seconds of the next 15:59. 

But when it mattered most, Hughes made big play after big play to lead the Eagles to victory. First, it was his steal and dish to Brown that cut a 6 point deficit to 4. Then, it was a triple from Brown (he was 5-8 from downtown in the game) that trimmed the margin to 58-57 with 7:14 to go. 

After the teams traded buckets for a few minutes, it was finally a 3-point play by Smith, who had 18 points, that gave the lead back to the Eagles with 3:14 to go. 

ULL didn’t go away, regaining the lead with a pair of free throws by Justin Miller with just over 2 minutes to play.

But there was Hughes again when it mattered most, with this sequence deciding the game. He first knocked down a deep triple with just 2:02 to play that sent Hanner Fieldhouse into a frenzy. Then, after he turned it over himself, Hughes snuck in from behind to steal the ball away from Jerekius Davis and laid it in, giving the Eagles their largest lead since before halftime. 

From there, Georgia Southern just had to make their free throws to seal the deal. They did just that, and held on for a 74-70 victory to move to 9-2 in conference play. Meanwhile, the Ragin’ Cajuns fell to just 4-7 in Sun Belt play. 

“They [Georgia Southern] caught the breaks at the end, and that’s what happens when a team is in first place.” Louisiana-Lafayette Head Coach Bobby Marlin said. “We’ve got to win some games. We have to make a push here.” (Quotes per ESPN 1420/Twitter)

Leading scorer Frank Bartley was held to just 4-21 from the field for the Ragin’ Cajuns, scoring just 13 points. However, ULL was carried by 18 from Miller, 17 from Wright, and 11 points and 15 rebounds from Bryce Washington. 

Hughes’ 20 points led all scorers, while Smith posted 18 points and Brown added 11.