Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton lead Wichita State to Missouri Valley title

Miles Simon called it on ESPN.  I called it as well–Tekele Cotton had to play a smart game, not a fantastic game by any stretch for the Shockers to win on Saturday afternoon.

But before Fred VanVleet briefly injured himself on a breakaway dunk attempt with a minute to play (yes, he did return in the final seconds), the Shockers kept Northern Iowa’s key shooters at bay.  Not only did Wichita State get revenge from their only conference loss at UNI on January 31, they repeated their Missouri Valley regular season championship with a convincing 74-60 win on Senior Day.

The other key was holding down All-American senior forward Seth Tuttle well before his scoring average.  Averaging 29.9 ppg leading up to this critical contest, Tuttle only finished with 16 points on only 6 of 8 shooting in 35 minutes.

But the two seniors led the way for the Shockers:

Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter (only a two year player at WSU) each had 11 points, Cotton had 8 rebounds and Carter had six.

Other key players that delivered big time for Shocker Nation:

Ron Baker, in 35 minutes of play was the game’s leading scorer with 17 points on 6 of 12 shooting, 3 of 7 from three-point range.

Junior Evan Wessel also chipped in with 11 points, and the three bench players for Gregg Marshall’s team combined for–you guessed it, 11 points.

Although UNI’s bench scored 20, nobody outside of Seth Tuttle finished in double figures.  The closest was the nine tabulated by junior guard Matt Bohannon.

Wichita State shot 50 percent from the field, compared to the 47.8% by Northern Iowa.  The only other glaring stat was that UNI committed 10 turnovers, to the Shockers having only four.

I would not be at all surprised that two things happen in the next two weeks surrounding the Missouri Valley Conference:

  1. Both Northern Iowa and Wichita State meet in the final on March 8.
  2. Both schools end up getting at best a 4 seed, or at worst a 5 come Selection Sunday.

Both teams are definitely Sweet 16 worthy.  But again, the tournament is all about matchups–it depends on what kind of draw comes up in two weeks.

But all is well in Shocker Nation, and deservedly so.  Seniors Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker will definitely get some looks on by scouts in the NBA, but they were both truly special players in the annals of Wichita State Shockers basketball.

Hope to be back later tonight with a review of the BYU-Gonzaga game.

Valparaiso holds off Cleveland State to win Horizon League title

It wasn’t pretty, but it was methodical nonethless.

You can add another line to Valparaiso Coach Bryce Drew’s stellar resume–2015 Horizon League Regular Season Champions as his alma mater beat Cleveland State on Friday night 56-53.

This means that the automatic bid for the Horizon League must go through the ARC in sometimes very snowy Porter County, Indiana.

And I bet that Ginger Zee of ABC News, a 2002 Valparaiso graduate herself loves reading this exciting news!

At times, the offense did look a bit shaky.  But after watching the tape delayed broadcast on ESPNU, Valpo’s key players delivered some key shots when it mattered most.  They played a methodical game and with the Crusaders leading in almost every key defensive statistical category, Cleveland State just simply couldn’t keep up–albeit the Vikings did cut the lead to 4 on a few occasions with six minutes to play.  In the end, Valpo showed a lot of desire and guts and proved to be the better team when it mattered most.

Finally, Iona swept the season series from Manhattan 79-75.  Six of their prior seven meetings saw both NYC rival schools have very close games, decided by three points or less (two went to overtime, one went two extra periods since 2012).

Time for me to get some much needed sleep–but a ton of big games on Saturday.  I will be keeping my eyes on two games in particular:

Northern Iowa at Wichita State, 2 p.m. Eastern on ESPN

BYU at Gonzaga, 10 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2.

Again, any upsets that occur–I will be all over it on Saturday night.
Take care, please continue to stay warm.

Michigan State loses free-throw contest and the game to Minnesota

First win by the Golden Gophers in East Lansing since 1997 puts Michigan State on the verge of not making the NCAA Tournament

MSU’s record against the RPI non-conference stands at 67, which does not look good again after dropping a 96-90 overtime decision at home to Minnesota.

Gang Green nearly had matters sealed up when Denzel Valentine hit two free throws with 25 seconds to put the Spartans ahead by five, 77-72.

Minnesota forced the extra period when Carlos Morris (finished with a team high 20 points) made a game tying 3-pointer while being fouled with only 2.2 seconds left in regulation.  He missed the free throw that could have iced the game, but in a very chippy game where both teams were whistled for 52 personal fouls (23 for Minnesota, 29 for Michigan State).

The biggest stat disparity was at the charity stripe:

Minnesota attempted 20 free throws in the extra session – as many as the Gophers had tried in the first 40 minutes.  They converted 14 of their 20 attempts in overtime and finished the game 29 of 40 for 72.5 percent.

Michigan State was 5 of 9 from the line in overtime and finished 19 of 29 for a rather mediocre 65.5 percent.

Valentine was the game’s high scorer with 27 points, while Travis Trice had a decent effort compiling 21 points and 10 assists.

MSU will pretty much have to run the table these final two plus weeks if they are going to be seeing their name called by Greg Gumbel on Selection Sunday.  Four losses against the RPI’s Top 10 along with suffering their worst loss of the season at the worst possible time to lowly Minnesota puts the Spartans in a rather precarious position.

Sunday afternoon, they travel to Wisconsin as the final game of CBS’ tripleheader coverage (4 p.m. Eastern time tip).  A few nights later will be their home finale in East Lansing against a team hungry for revenge in Purdue (Wednesday, March 4 at 8 p.m. Eastern).  Their final game before the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago will be in Bloomington against another team fighting for respectability in the Indiana Hoosiers.  That game will be on Saturday, March 7 at noon Eastern on ESPN.

Two other small bits of notes before I call it a night:

SMU swept the season series against Josh Pantner and the Memphis Tigers, 66-57 at the FedEx Forum.  The Mustangs still keep their 1/2 game lead over Tulsa with only a few games left to play.

Already there are some preseason holiday tournaments booked and set in stone.  The latest to join the list is the Legends Classic, slated to play on Monday/Tuesday November 23 and 24 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.  The headliners include LSU, Marquette, North Carolina State, and Arizona State.  Look for a pair of freshman to make some immediate impact, Henry Ellenson of Marquette and Ben Simmons suiting up for the Tigers of LSU.

Valparaiso again will try to seal the Horizon Conference regular season crown on Friday, with both Wisconsin-Green Bay and Cleveland State breathing right down the Crusader’s necks.  Keep in mind the Valparaiso at Cleveland State game will be tape delayed, 10 p.m. Eastern time tip on ESPNU.

Other games to keep an eye on are in the Ivy League:
Harvard (9-1 in conference play) leads Yale (8-2) by one game in the race for their automatic bid.  Harvard plays early at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time at Cornell on the CBS Sports Network, while Yale is at home on Friday with a 7 p.m. Eastern time lid lifter against Princeton.

Five-Pack of Upsets on Wednesday night muck up the bubble picture

Shooting misses and sloppy play–just like the messy weather in 2/3 of the nation on Wednesday night, most of the games involving bubble teams mirrored the snow in the Midwest and the ice in the Deep South.

Illinois feels more like they are getting Orange Crushed

Carver-Hawkeye Arena again was not kind to the Orange Crush.  Case in point the field-goal shooting:  The Illini shot just 33.3 percent from the field, and some of the individual percentages were even worse.  Malcolm Hill, who’s been the team’s go-to scorer since January, was 1-for-10 from the field with two points.  Kendrick Nunn was 3-for-11 with 7 points. Rayvonte Rice and Ahmad Starks, who made up the majority of the team’s scoring output with 20 and 19 points, respectively, finished a combined 12 for 28 (Rice went 5-for-13 while Starks made 7 field goals out of his 15 attempts from the field).

Nnanna Egwu ended up fouling out, and three other Illini players had four fouls each.  John Groce’s team was whistled for 25 personal fouls, and Iowa ended up going to the free-throw line a whopping 30 times.  Iowa ended up missing 10 in the waning minutes, but their earlier 20 charity attempts that they did make proved to be more than enough in the Hawks’ 68-60 win.

Illinois only went 7 of 21 from long distance, which again did not help their cause in trying to find a consistent line-up that can produce some scoring output when it is desperately needed.

Aaron White was simply phenomenal for Iowa, scoring a career-high 29 points to go along with nine rebounds.  He was the only Hawkeyes player in double figures, though Jarrod Uthoff managed to have himself a nice game with six points to go along with 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.

Illinois is in danger of missing out on the NCAA’s entirely, now having lost four straight games after looking so good during most of December and January.

The Illini are at 17-11 overall and 7-8 in the Big Ten, while Iowa is pretty certain they will be dancing come March with a cool 19-10 overall season mark to go along with a 9-6 mark in conference play.  That game I talked about earlier in the week at Purdue in early March appears to be an even bigger game than originally thought when the schedule makers drew it up last July.

Elsewhere…

Valparaiso could have clinched the Horizon League regular season title outright, but fell short.  The Crusaders blew a 58-55 lead during the final media time out, as the last 3:49 belonged to Detroit.  The Titans were helped greatly by Anton Wilson, whose three point basket gave them the lead with 1:51 to play.  Juwan Howard, Jr. (yes, the son of the former member of Michigan’s Fab Five during 1992 and 1993) made three free throws with one second to play.  The 63-60 upset snapped the Crusaders’ seven-game win streak.  Valpo is still in the driver’s seat (25-5 overall, 12-3 in the conference), but a huge matchup on Friday night at Cleveland State will probably settle who gets the top seed (10 p.m. on tape delay on ESPNU).

Richmond shocked VCU 67-63 in two overtimes.  VCU had two players out due to injury (starting point guard Briante Weber, who is out for the season with a knee injury he sustained during the teams’ previous meeting on Jan. 31, and reserve forward Justin Tillman, who sat with an injured shoulder).

The Rams only shot 19 of 58 at 32.8 percent.  The key play in sealing Richmond’s victory was Terry Allen’s free throws and a key block in the closing seconds.  Treveon Graham hit a long distance shot at the end of regulation to cap a 16 point comeback during the second half.  However, his attempt to send the game to a third overtime was thwarted thanks to Graham, who iced the game with two free throws.  VCU travels to Dayton on Saturday, another huge game similar to Northern Iowa going to Wichita State in a battle of top dog supremacy in the Missouri Valley.

North Florida stunned “Dunk City” Florida Gulf Coast, 76-62 thanks to FGCU’s rather anemic shooting–going 24 of 65 for 36.9 percent.  The Ospreys swept the season series, thanks to a blistering shooting exhibition–29 of 59 for 49.2 percent as four players finished in double figures.  Although both teams finished 11-2 in Atlantic Sun play, they begin their conference tournament next week on opposite sides of the bracket.  If form holds, “Dunk City” will be forced to go on the road for the final.

Finally, Fresno State toppled Wyoming 64-59 and Baylor scored their first-ever win at Ames in edging out Iowa State 79-70, s Scott Drew’s Bears continue to make another case on why they should be in the 68 team field.

As I close out this blog, honorable mention must go out to Chris Collins and the Northwestern Wildcats.  Matching point-for-point with Indiana at a raucous Welsh-Ryan Arena, you must have thought that a Cubs baseball was breaking out.  Tied at 40 entering halftime, the second half saw the Wildcats get hot and the Hoosiers get ice cold.  Led by freshman Vic Law, who was coming off a career-high 17 points in NU’s previous win over Penn State, had another nice game with 14 points and grabbing eight rebounds in a convincing 72-57 upset.

Not only is Northwestern back at .500 for the season, but this was their first four-game Big Ten winning streak which was a long time coming.

The last time that happened, Batman was the show to watch on TV and Chicago went from 67 degrees in late January 1967 to seeing a then record of 68.4 inches of snow paralyze the city.

Will Thursday and Friday’s action prove to be any different?
Again, any upsets that occur–I will be over it.

Please have a good night, and continue to stay warm and dry.

With several highly ranked teams losing on Tuesday, a popular question comes to the surface

That question is:

Will this affect my favorite school’s seedings?

Sometimes yes, sometimes not.

Case in point, Wisconsin losing at Maryland 59-53.  Most of their team was healthy, but Frank Kaminsky did not play early in the conference schedule when the Badgers lost at Rutgers.  They cannot afford to lose two in a row.  However, I still like their chances to win the Big Ten’s automatic bid come March 15 in Chicago.

How about North Carolina and Notre Dame?

The bigger loss was by the Tar Heels, losing to North Carolina State in the Dean Dome 58-46.  The Wolfpack are once again catching fire in the final days, where most experts have counted them out (please revisit the late, great Jim Valvano and their miracle championship run of 1983 for inspiration).

For the Fighting Irish, they lost at home to a team that is going nowhere fast in Syracuse.  You can safely say that they had an off-night, but in these final set of games to determine the jockeying for seed position–the Committee will probably look at this game as a minor blip in the radar.  The Irish should be somewhere between a 3 and a 5 seed come Selection Sunday as it stands with this blog reporter–but things can change once the conference tournaments begin in earnest on Tuesday, March 3.  The Irish will be off until March 4 with a huge game at Louisville, as they hope to smell blood as the Cardinals are struggling desperately to replace their starting point guard in Chris Jones who averaged 13.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

As for the Tar Heels who are trying to survive the first days without their greatest coach in program history in Dean Smith, they will have two games on the road before hosting Duke in ESPN’s final College Gameday broadcast of the season at 9 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday, March 7.  At stake for UNC, a higher seed position–anywhere from a low 3 to a high 6 is where they could be pegged come Selection Sunday.

Under The Microscope: Cincinnati, Dayton, Pittsburgh, and Illinois

Cincinnati Bearcats, American Athletic Conference

18-9 overall, 9-5 overall in AAC play (4th place)

Good wins:  December 17 vs. San Diego State, December 30 at North Carolina State, and February 5 at SMU.

Bad losses:  November 29 on neutral court vs. Ole Miss, December 20 vs. VCU, February 10 at Temple, February 18 vs. Xavier.

RPI Breakdown:  49 overall, 47 in non-conference play.

Analysis:  The game against Xavier was one that definitely got away.  The 59-57 loss definitely leaves the Bearcats in a rather precarious position.  Although they are 3-1 against the RPI Top 50, a solid majority of their wins have income against mostly inferior teams from the RPI index numbered 101 and below.  The rest of the games are against teams in the RPI’s 200 or worse, so they would have to reach at least the AAC Tournament final to possibly snag one of those final at-large bids (presuming most of the favorites win in the smaller conferences, just fyi).

Dayton Flyers, Atlantic 10 Conference

20-6 overall, 10-4 in conference play (3rd place).

Good win:  November 20 on neutral court vs. Texas A&M.

Bad losses:  December 13 at Arkansas, January 20 at Davidson, and January 29 at UMass.

RPI Breakdown:  35 overall, 28 in non-conference play.

Analysis:  In a typical year, 20 wins were usually your ticket to the Big Dance.  But the NCAA Selection Committee places bigger value on who they played, where they played, and how they fared at the time they lost to them.  Looking above at their really bad losses, the RPI’s had those three schools respectively positioned at 20, 57, and 39.

Two of those 3 schools will more than likely be heading to the NIT, with Davidson being the possible NCAA entrant presuming they have a good showing in two weeks.  16 of their 20 wins have come against teams who RPI is 101 and below.  Their game Saturday afternoon at VCU looms very large.  If they don’t win against the Rams, they will have to at least reach the final of the Atlantic 10 to have a realistic shot at an at-large bid.

Pittsburgh Panthers, Atlantic Coast Conference

19-10 overall, 8-7 in conference play (7th place)

Good wins:  January 31 vs. Notre Dame and February 14 vs. North Carolina.

Bad losses:  January 19 at Duke, February 11 at Louisville, and February 16 at Virginia.

RPI Breakdown:  36 overall, 51 in non-conference play.

Analysis:  Usually, Jamie Dixon’s are well coached on the defensive end of the floor.  This season finds them mostly in the lower rungs of the ACC standings in giving up an average of 65.3 points per game.  Plus, there are so many other teams that they would have a difficult time to leapfrog before the regular season ends.  But their 1-5 record against the RPI Top 50 does not make them a favorable pick for an at-large bid.  Look for them to possibly get into the NIT.

Illinois Fighting Illini, Big Ten Conference

17-10 overall, 7-7 in Big Ten play (8th place).

Good wins:  November 28 on neutral court vs. Baylor, January 7 vs. Maryland, and February 7 at Michigan State.

Bad losses:  December 9 on neutral court vs. Villanova, January 3 at Ohio State, February 15 at Wisconsin, and February 22 vs. Michigan State.

RPI Breakdown:  58 overall, 67 in non-conference play.

Analysis:  The Orange Crush is an interesting Jekyll and Hyde case–you never know which team John Groce is going to be bringing out on the courts.  Either you get the team that came through in the clutch in the annual Border War clash in St. Louis when Rayvonte Rice drilled the game winning three at the buzzer to win bragging rights over Missouri, 62-59.  However, with Rice being injured and Illinois continuing to readjusting their starting lineup in the last several weeks, the Orange is probably going to feel very crushed if they are one of the first teams out.  Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com has had them out more often than not since the Super Bowl.  Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com has them in as a 10 seed going to Omaha.

Their RPI slate thus far has mirrored Cincinnati’s RPI in many respects.  But they can get right the ship just in time before the Big Ten Tournament at “The House That Michael Jordan Built”, the United Center in Chicago with the huge matchup on March 7 at Purdue to possibly determine one of the final at-large bids in such a top-heavy, topsy-turvy conference.

Blog Exclusive: My Top Ten NCAA Tournament Early Round Sites

In reverse chronological order:

10. McKale Center in Tucson, University of Arizona (1977, 1979, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2005, and 2011).

Most famous game–1993 Second Round involving the Fab Five when Jimmy King beat the shot clock off a Jalen Rose leaner to give Michigan a hard fought 86-84 overtime win over UCLA.

9. The Omni in Atlanta (former site during 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, and 1992)

Again, their most famous game occurred in the early run of the Fab Five.  Michigan survived a score against John Cheney’s famed Temple zone defense 73-66 in the First Round.

8. Tie, United Center in Chicago (1998, 2002, 2007, 2011) and

Allstate Arena (formerly named as Rosemont Horizon 1987 and 1993).

Tons of cool games from both popular venues situated near some of America’s busiest expressways.  DePaul was one of the last teams to utilize a true home court advantage en route to a Sweet 16 appearance in 1987.

VCU used their opening round in Dayton (another selection listed below) as the Rams snagged a pair of upsets in the Windy City–first by double digits over Georgetown and surviving a knock-down, near dragfest with Purdue en route to their first Final Four appearance.

But the all-time best belongs to Jason Kidd and the California Golden Bears upsetting the then two-time defending champions of Duke in 1993.  That Second Round game to close out the Saturday session was everything you wanted in a tournament game–mood swings, great plays, and lots of guts left out on the floor.

7. Verizon Center, Washington DC (1998, 2002, 2008, 2011).

6. Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, North Carolina (1980, 1983, 1986, 1989, 1992, 2001, 2006, 2009, 2012, and will be back hosting again in 2017).

1998 First Round, Washington appeared to have an upset win in the cards but Richard “Rip” Hamilton made a soft seven-foot shot at the buzzer to give UConn the win.

5. University of Dayton Arena, Dayton, Ohio (1970, 1973, 1976, 1981, 85-86, 91-92, 1995, 2001, 2006, 2009, 2013 plus other play-in Games 1983, 1984 and since 2001).

George Mason’s run of being Giant Killers began here, along with a classic in the 2009 First Round when tiny Siena upset Ohio State in two overtimes.

But since 2011 having four opening round games is a bit much, plus reading about the scathing locker room quarters as mentioned by some CBSSports.com bloggers made me lower this ranking from a previous high between 2 and 3 in prior years.

4. Tie with Oklahoma City:

Oklahoma State Fair Arena, 1957
The Myriad, 1994 and 1998

Chesapeake Energy Arena (2003, 2005, 2010, and will host again in 2016).

The Pacer Play, First Round 1998 Valparaiso vs. Ole Miss–you know the rest:

3. Salt Lake City:

Jon M. Huntsman Center (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006) and EnergySolutions Arena (2013 and will host again in 2017).

Little Steve Nash, who was a totally different guy and had a lion sized heart when Santa Clara became the first 15 seed to upset a 2 seed in Arizona in the 1993 First Round.  Twenty years later, a game involving Gonzaga proved to be just as huge.

2. Taco Bell Arena, Boise, Idaho (1983, 1989, 1992, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2009, and again will host in 2018).

Two key endings immediately come to mind, the 1995 Second Round with UCLA edging out Missouri:

and 2001 involving 15 seed Hampton shocking then then 2 seed Iowa State.

Finally, here is the Number One First/Second Round NCAA Tournament Venue Of All-Time, According To This Blog Reporter:

1. Memorial Gymnasium on the campus of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee (1982, 1989, and 1993).

Image courtesy of ballparks.phanfare.com

Image courtesy of ballparks.phanfare.com

Built in the early 1950’s, the uniqueness of this gym is unlike any other in American sport.

There is no air conditioning inside the gym, but instead is only on the practice courts.  But the team’s benches are on opposite ends of the court–a full 94 feet away from each basket.

Also, instead of having the Vanderbilt cheerleaders looking directly to the right of the basket along each baseline–there they all are in clear view of the TV cameras with tons of room to spare.

Even the seating arrangements according to their Wikipedia page is “almost Cinemascope-like”, taking you back to a simpler, earlier time.

But in terms of overall early round venues, this was the best of the best.

Next week, we will look back at the Top 10 Sweet Sixteen/Elite Eight venues.  Plenty of recent classic stadiums which are no longer around will comprised a majority of that list.