Late Flurry Not Enough For Dayton As Tulsa Claims 4th Straight Win

By Kevin Sweeney

Dayton got the look they wanted.

Down 3 and on a 7-0 run, the Flyers got a wide-open look from the corner for 45% 3-point shooter Ryan Mikesell.

But like most of UD’s shots in this one, it rimmed out.

The Flyers shot just 5-23 from downtown, and Tulsa took advantage to win 72-67 Sunday evening in a game played as part of the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase at Mohegan Sun Arena. Martins Igbanu led the way for the Golden Hurricanes with 17 points.

After a Showcase opener that featured a nearly 2.5 hour game and 56 fouls, game #2 moved at a much more brisk pace, finishing in under two hours. Despite the significant travel to get to Connecticut, Frank Haith’s club came out firing on all cylinders early. The Golden Hurricanes exploded out to an early 27-13 lead capped by a big dunk by DaQuan Jeffries. Jeffries was instrumental in the opening period, posting 12 points. But Dayton answered nicely with a 17-3 half-closing run to tie the score going into intermission.

Tulsa regained control in the second half thanks to Igbanu, who had 14 of his 17 points in the second half. Their lead stretched to as many as 10 with 2:28 to play, and it looked like the Golden Hurricanes would run away with it. But the Flyers had one more answer in them, responding with a pair of key stops on the defensive end and 3 straight quick buckets on offense to cut the deficit to just 3 with 50 seconds to play. After another stop, the Flyers had a chance to tie it, but Mikesell’s shot fell off and free throws by Tulsa’s Curran Scott sealed the deal.

The loss continues a frustrating stretch for the Flyers, as they have now lost 5 of their last 6 games after a 4-0 start. UD has had its chances for resume-boosting wins against Mississippi State, Auburn, Oklahoma, Virginia, and now Tulsa in the stretch, but despite competing in all those games were unable to come away with a big win. They’ll likely need to win the A10 Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament.

Dayton was led by 15 points from Josh Cunningham and 14 from Jalen Crutcher. Obi Toppin and Trey Landers each added 13 for the Flyers.

With the win, Tulsa stays hot with its 4th consecutive win. With wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma State, Haith’s team has acquitted itself well in the non-conference and should be seen as a legit AAC contender. The Golden Hurricanes have one more game before opening conference play January 2 at undefeated Houston.

Rhode Island Pulls Away Late To Win Foul-Filled Battle With West Virginia

By Kevin Sweeney

Rhode Island put together a complete performance Sunday afternoon, pulling away in the closing moments to knock off West Virginia 83-70 as part of the Hall of Fame Holiday Showcase at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. The Rams closed the game on an extended 24-11 run in the final 12:15 of game action, and put 5 players in double figures for the first time this season.

“We play physical basketball,” redshirt junior guard Christion Thompson said postgame. “We figured out how the refs were calling the game, we just had to adjust.” Head coach David Cox was careful to credit the referees postgame, but he was issued a technical foul early in the game after arguing a travel call.

In a game marked by its fouls (56 in total, plus 4 technicals), a URI team that has played just 8 players in its regular rotation found a way to keep its best players on the floor down the stretch, and that proved to be the difference. After getting just 5 minutes out of talented big man Cyril Langevine in the first half, Langevine never left the floor in the second. He finished with 15 points and 6 rebounds in the contest, and also led the game in +/- with a +20.

“He came out with a tremendous amount of energy (in the second half),” Cox said on Langevine. “He’s tenacious, he’s a great rebounder, and he’s finishing a lot better than he has in the last 2 years… We value him tremendously, and I think that value was shown today against Big 12 competition.”

The game got off to a frenetic start from the opening tip, with a layup 3 seconds in for Jeff Dowtin opening the scoring and a total of 24 points scored in the first 4 minutes and change. Rhode Island led the entire first half, but the Mountaineers were able to hang around thanks to the free throw line, where they shot 20-24 in the opening period. Still, WVU struggled to get into much of a rhythm offensively, shooting just 35% from the field and 3-14 from 3.

Things didn’t get much better in the second on offense for Bob Huggins’ group, as they had the same number of field goals as turnovers (8). Playing without star big man Sagaba Konate due to an injury, the Mountaineers were sloppy on offense, which led to several run-outs in transition for the Rams.

Still, the Mountaineers were able to hang around for much of the second half, even taking the lead at one point. But as the game went into its closing stages, URI put the clamps down on defense and got some easy buckets in transition, using a decisive 12-4 run to push their lead to 10 in the final minutes and come away with consecutive wins for the first time all season.

Fatts Russell led the way for URI with 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists, while Jeff Dowtin had 18, 5 boards, and 7 dishes. In addition to Russell, Dowtin, and Langevine, the Rams also got 12 points from Christion Thompson and 11 from Jermaine Harris. Facing “Press Virginia”, URI took care of the ball well with just 9 turnovers in the game.

20ish seconds in quote about development by Cox.

Wesley Harris was a bright spot for West Virginia with a career-high 18 points to go along with 9 rebounds. Esa Ahmad added 12 for the Mountaineers. James Bolden was held to just 1 point in the game and turned it over 4 times.

The Mountaineers fall to 6-4 on the season, a brutal start for a team expected by most to be a top-20 team preseason. They will be back in action Saturday against Jacksonville State.

Next up for Rhode Island (5-3) is a matchup with Bucknell on Saturday.

Podcast: Top 25 Breakdownv

Today on the show, Brad and Kevin walk through the top 25 and how they’d rank the nation’s best teams, allowing them to recap all the exciting action from this week in college basketball. We talk who should be #1, create tiers, and debate which teams should sneak into the back half of the top 25. They also submit their picks for the week as always.

What Happened to Monmouth?

By Kevin Sweeney

Two years ago, Monmouth sat atop every Cinderella watchlist. The Hawks were coming off a season in which they recorded five wins over high-major opponents and were snubbed for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. They followed that season up with a second consecutive MAAC regular season title, going 18-2 in the conference before falling to Siena in the semifinals of the conference tournament. Those Hawks, headlined by 2-time MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson, would go down as one of the better mid-majors to never make the tournament.

Despite the incredible disappointment of not getting over the NCAA Tournament hump, the Monmouth program looked to be in great shape. They had beautiful facilities close to the Jersey Shore, an excited fanbase, and a national cache most mid-majors could only dream of thanks in no small part to their dancing bench:

However, by far the biggest reason for excitement was the presence of head coach King Rice. The former North Carolina Tar Heel looked to be a star in the coaching business, with his gleaming smile drawing the attention of cameras time and time again as Monmouth downed opponent after opponent. Rice’s club played an incredibly exciting brand of basketball that featured tons of guards who could make plays off the bounce and light it up from the outside. His name repeatedly came up for job openings, with a rumored deal with Duquesne never materializing. Meanwhile, buzz continued that Rice could be the man to replace Roy Williams at his alma mater in the coming years.

Skip ahead about 21 months from the day Nico Clareth lit up the Times Union Center on one leg while Rice sat back and watched making an adjustment, and Rice couldn’t be further from the UNC job. His Hawks are 0-10 with six of those losses coming by 15 or more points and are one of just five remaining winless teams in D1 basketball. They sit at 346th out of 353 teams in the most recent NCAA NET rankings, while Bart Torvik’s T-rank doesn’t project a win for Monmouth until at least January 5.

So how did this rags-to-riches story go back to rags so fast?

The clearest answer is the early departure of Micah Seaborn. Seaborn had been the young star of the two elite MU teams, and was seen as the bridge to keep Monmouth near the top of the MAAC while they developed a new core. Instead, Seaborn missed much of last season with various injuries before leaving school with one year of eligibility remaining to join the pro ranks. Seaborn was drafted into the G-League by the Grand Rapids Drive but is not currently on their roster.

However, the program’s flaws in the post-Robinson era go far beyond Seaborn’s early exit. Rice simply hasn’t recruited well enough to win games, especially given all the momentum the program had. Rather than take advantage of that momentum and establish itself as a powerhouse in the northeast, Rice and his staff has really struggled to land high-end talent. Per VerbalCommits.com, Monmouth’s roster has the lowest average star rating in the MAAC. In the two classes since Robinson graduated, Rice hasn’t had a big recruiting win over a higher-level program.In his 2017 class, one in which he had plenty of playing time to offer, Rice signed 3 scholarship freshmen: Deion Hammond (offers from Canisius and Quinnipiac), Marcus McClary (Monmouth was his only offer), and Melik Martin (originally signed at D2 Lincoln). Offers don’t mean everything (Robinson had no other offers out of high school), but not being able to capitalize on program momentum to land some impact freshmen is a big missed opportunity.

Rice hasn’t helped himself on the recruiting trail with his actions over the last two frustrating seasons. Last season, Rice drew criticism for ridiculing a student radio broadcaster after a loss, per a story in the Asbury Park Press. He has also criticized his program’s fans multiple times throughout his tenure, including after their most recent loss to Hofstra.

The worst misstep came this past June, when Rice pulled the scholarship of rising senior forward Pierre Sarr without providing a reason. Run-offs have become a part of college basketball, but Monmouth had multiple available scholarships when Sarr’s scholarship was pulled. To make matters worse, Sarr was one of the more highly-regarded recruits in program history, coming from NJ prep powerhouse Roselle Catholic. Beyond the simple criticism of not letting a guy finish his career, why would you run off a player from an influential program that you hope to land players from in the future? If you are a prep coach in the tri-state area, are you sending your kid to King Rice?

If you take out the three seasons that Justin Robinson was an all-MAAC first teamer from Rice’s coaching record, he is 44-92 as a head coach and has lost 20 or more games in every season without Robinson. I think it’s fair to say that Rice isn’t a very good coach.

Now, the Monmouth program is in a brutally difficult spot. Rice is under contract through the 2021-22 season, and few mid-major programs have the means to buy out more than one year of salary. You could stick it out a couple years and hope that Rice finds another Robinson, but allowing the program to remain in futility until you can afford to buy Rice out would make those back-to-back MAAC titles even more of a distant memory.

While it’s not entirely clear what it would cost to fire Rice after this season, a buyout may be prohibitive after this season. But without a change, it’s hard for me to see this Monmouth program turning things back around.

In Big Win Over Loyola, Nevada Lives Up to the Hype… and More

By Kevin Sweeney

Porter Moser ran out of good things to say about the Nevada team that had just handled his Loyola club.

He talked about the Wolf Pack’s experience, their length, their strength, their depth. He talked about what a terrific trio Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, and Jordan Caroline is. How adding the monstrous Trey Porter gave them an inside edge they didn’t have last year.

Finally, Moser exhaled and said five words that anyone who was at Gentile Arena on Tuesday night was thinking.

“They are really, really good.”

Hype for this Nevada team has been growing since the Martins and Caroline announced in late May that they would return to school for one final season of college basketball, rather than head to the professional ranks. Those decisions, combined with the previous recruiting coups of the aforementioned Porter (Old Dominion) and McDonald’s All-American Jordan Brown, made Nevada a consensus top ten team coming into the season coming off a crazy run to the Sweet 16 the year before.

Still, there were doubts. After all, it’s pretty unbelievable that a program that went 9-22 just four seasons ago could be this good, this fast. Pundits questioned the team’s chemistry: Eric Musselman is known for playing a tight rotation, but he had eight players on his roster who had averaged more than 13 points per game in Division 1 basketball, plus a 5-star in Brown. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and those outside the program wondered how Musselman could handle that many egos. Some suggested the somewhat fluky way the Wolf Pack had advanced through the NCAA Tournament (an overtime win over Texas and a miraculous 22-point comeback against Cincinnati) was causing people to overrate the Pack. Basketball analysts debated how Musselman’s pace-and-space, 4-out-1-in offense would look with more bigs and less shooters.

A blowout home loss to Washington in a charity exhibition game and a fairly ugly display against D2 San Francisco State in which Nevada trailed at halftime did little to quell the criticism.

But when the lights came on for real, the Wolf Pack have answered the bell. The seven games they’ve played haven’t been a murderer’s row, but after seeing them play in person on Tuesday night, I’m sold.

Nevada is elite. They might even be better than the preseason consensus. A Final Four is a firmly attainable goal. Here’s why:

Nevada has the personnel to match up with virtually every team in college basketball. Tuesday night, size was most important. The two most important players for Loyola were 6-1 PG Clayton Custer and 6-9 big Cameron Krutwig. The Wolf Pack went to their tall-while-still-switchable lineup of the Martins, Caroline, 6-7 Tre’Shawn Thurman, and Porter. The goal? Put tons of length on Custer to make it difficult for him to get shots off or get to the rim, while using Porter’s gigantic wingspan and strength to make the efficient post scorer Krutwig work for everything he got down low. Nevada executed both of those plans to perfection, and on offense got anything they wanted against a stingy Loyola defense. The Wolf Pack didn’t rely much on the 3-point shot (6-14 on the game) after ranking in the top 30 nationally in attempts per game last season. Rather, they focused on getting to the rim and sharing the ball. Key in that was Caleb Martin, who got off to a blistering start with 15 points in the first ten minutes of game action. Known as an elite 3-point threat, Martin attacked more off the bounce to great success.

“I think dating back to last year, I wasn’t as aggressive. I wanted everyone to be aggressive, it wasn’t just me. I saw openings and I took them.” Caleb Martin said postgame on the team’s attacking mindset on the offensive end. “Last couple games, I think I settled a lot from the three-point line and I wasn’t shooting too good a percentage so I wanted to get inside, get to the rim, and make moves off the dribble.” 

The gameplan was much different in Nevada’s previous game, a 110-87 victory over a hot UMass team in Las Vegas. UMass is a team built around tremendous guards, so Musselman trotted out a lineup similar to what the Wolf Pack did for much of last season. Thurman and Caroline played the 5 and the 4 respectively, with Porter swapped out for a shooter and creator. Portland transfer Jazz Johnson and Wagner transfer Corey Henson each played over 20 minutes in the game and were productive, combining for 18 points on 7-9 shooting. Meanwhile, the Nebraska-Omaha import Thurman exploded for 22 points and 8 rebounds to help lead the Pack to a victory. How many teams’ 4th or 5th offensive option is capable of impacting the game like that?

“They all understand that we have a lot of talent on this team and the only way it’s going to work for guys to share the ball and get multiple people touches,” Musselman said “We have to look at the mismatches and see what they sense for us, and then it’s up to these guys to put the team in front of everything else and that’s what they’ve done.”

The glue that has kept the offense together has been Cody Martin, who became the Pack’s full-time point guard after Lindsey Drew got hurt in February and has thrived in the role. Cody has slashed a hyper-efficient .542/.375/.813 so far this season with a 4.78 assist to turnover ratio. He has also improved as an outside shooter after making just 15 triples all of last season.

One play that really stood out came in early in the second half, when Loyola had made a push to cut the deficit to 13. With the shot clock running down, Cody Martin’s crossover dribble had Loyola guard Cooper Kaifes staggering backwards before draining a dagger three. If Cody can hit that shot consistently, watch out. Here’s the shot (at 27 second mark):

Meanwhile, there have seemingly been no issues getting complete buy-in from the bench players on much smaller roles than perhaps they had anticipated when they signed on to join the Pack.

“There’s no fighting, there’s no attitude, none of that,” Caleb Martin said. “They just do whatever it takes for us to win as a group so far.”

Brown and Bryant transfer Nisre Zouzoua have been the ones shorted the most in terms of minutes, with Brown only averaging 14 minutes and Zouzoua playing just 9 per night. Both should return next season though and have much bigger roles as the Wolf Pack reload.

The versatility and size that Musselman added this offseason has helped Nevada improve immensely on the defensive end. The Pack ranked 108th nationally in adjusted defense per KenPom last season. Chris Murray of Nevada Sports Net noted preseason that in the past ten years, only one team with a defense not rated in the top 50 on KenPom reached a Final Four. Nevada’s mark so far this season? 47th.

Moser said that the ability for Nevada to switch virtually every ball screen with so many interchangeable athletes on the floor, alongside the incredible length the Wolf Pack has especially with Porter on the floor, shrinks the floor for opposing offenses.

“I thought Nevada was just so physically imposing defensively,” Moser said.

The final piece the Pack has that other teams can’t compete with is experience. All five starters are 5th-year seniors, 22 and 23 year old young men in an era of college basketball in which youth rules. Nevada has 5 players who have played in at least 100 college basketball games. They’ve played in NCAA Tournaments, conference title games, and road games in all kinds of tough atmospheres. The entire core could have professional contracts right now, whether it be in the US or Europe. Nothing will fluster this group. We saw how the game sped up on RJ Barrett in the final minutes against Gonzaga in Maui. That won’t happen with the ball in Cody Martin’s hands.

Nevada has it all. They have the pieces to match up nicely against anyone, going big or small. They have guys who can get their own shot. They are playing great defense. And they’ve been there before.

So yeah, I’d agree with Porter Moser on this one.

They are really, really good.

Nevada Rides Hot Start to Revenge Victory At Loyola

By Kevin Sweeney

For all intents and purposes, it was over at the first media timeout.

In one of the most talked-about mid-major games of the season and a rematch of last season’s Sweet 16, #6 Nevada blitzed Loyola early and the Ramblers never had a big run in them, as the Wolf Pack claimed a 79-65 victory Tuesday night at Gentile Arena.

“We stared at the [Final Four] banner today in shootaround,” Eric Musselman said postgame. While last season’s defeat wasn’t discussed directly before the game, it was clear that the Wolf Pack, especially veteran cogs Caleb & Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline, were out for revenge. Caleb Martin said a picture of the banner was on a pregame slideshow for 5-10 minutes while the team got dressed.

“We had a chip on our shoulder, we had something to prove,” Caleb Martin said. “Obviously it’s not going to get that game back from last year, but it was a good to come to their place and play another game.”

Playing in front of a raucous sell-out crowd that saw students lining up hours in advance to secure their seat, the Ramblers were never able to truly capitalize on the home court energy. Nevada scored 14 of the game’s first 18 points and led by as many as 20 in the opening period, riding an explosive 17 first-half points from redshirt senior Caleb Martin. Martin had 15 in the first 10:15 of game action and looked locked in from the get-go as he looked for revenge from last season’s Sweet 16 defeat.

Loyola would regain its footing after the disastrous start, riding 5th-year senior Marques Townes’ 12 first-half points to re-energize the crowd and keep Loyola within some kind of striking distance. A triple by freshman Cooper Kaifes got the Ramblers back within 12 late in the first half with a chance to gain momentum into halftime, but Nevada had the answer with four unanswered to go into the half up 16.

That established a common theme– every Loyola push was responded to with a silencer or two by the Wolf Pack. Whether it was an awkward floater by big man Trey Porter or a dagger three by Caleb Martin, the Pack always had an answer.

“I didn’t think we quit. I thought we battled. I thought we played our tails off,” Loyola head coach Porter Moser said. “Every time we tried to claw back, they answered the bell.” Townes attributed Loyola’s inability to get back into the game with not getting stops at the defensive end, noting that the Ramblers got just one “gap” (a term Loyola uses for 3 consecutive defensive stops) all game.

The 6-11 grad transfer Porter, who wasn’t a part of last year’s run, was huge in this one. He impacted the game on both ends, holding star Loyola big Cameron Krutwig to just 5-11 shooting while posting 14 points and 10 rebounds on the offensive end. Moser quipped that he wasn’t sure if Krutwig had missed six shots all season, crediting the addition of Porter’s length as an area where Nevada had improved from last season.

“He did a great job of walling up and altering shots,” Musselman said. “When he plays that good defensively, we’re really a different team.”

Both Krutwig and senior point guard Clayton Custer were seemingly bothered by the length Nevada trotted out. No one in the Nevada starting lineup was listed smaller than 6-7. Custer twice had shots blocked from behind from the Martins.

“I thought Nevada was just so physically imposing defensively,” Moser said. “If you do get to the rim, there was like three sets of arms to block a shot.” Moser noted several times the experience of this Nevada team, with five 5th-year seniors making up the starting lineup and just one player (5-star freshman Jordan Brown) in the regular playing rotation that isn’t at least in his 4th year of college.

That comes in sharp contrast to Loyola, which played three freshmen and two sophomores regular minutes. One freshman that answered the bell tonight was Cooper Kaifes, a shooting guard who posted 11 points in 24 minutes of action.

“I thought Cooper Kaifes was absolutely not afraid of the moment,” Moser said. “That was a huge bright spot.”

Nevada was led by Caleb Martin’s 21 and Cody Martin’s 20 points to go along with 7 assists. Champaign, IL native Jordan Caroline posted a workmanlike 15 points and 6 rebounds in a homecoming of sorts. Caroline had several family members at the game. The Wolf Pack move to 7-0 on the season with a tough stretch upcoming featuring tilts with USC, Arizona State, Utah, and mid-major powers Grand Canyon and South Dakota State in the next 6 games.

Townes’ 24 points and 9 rebounds led the way for Loyola, which falls to 4-3 on the season. Custer was limited to just 4-11 shooting for 10 points, while Krutwig needed 11 shots for his 11 points. The Ramblers are back in action against UIC this weekend.

Sophomore guard Lucas Williamson is dealing with hand swelling and will get x-rays, Moser said. He noted that the swelling was similar to the swelling experienced by Ben Richardson when the since-graduated guard broke his hand last fall.

Duke Goes Down, Nova Comes Back, Virginia is Virginia

Today on the show, we have a loaded pod breaking down the always-busy Feast Week. First, they break down the Maui Invitational and how Duke’s freshmen fell to Gonzaga. Then, they get into Kansas’ big win over Tennessee, Virginia winning at the Battle 4 Atlantis, and Villanova grabbing a huge win over Florida State in Orlando. Finally, they talk the lack of potential mid-major at-large bids and why that trend has continued to develop, and as always make their picks for the week ahead.