Tag Archives: 2010-11 college basketball season

NBA Draft 2011 Preview: Interview with NBA Scouting Director Ryan Blake

I recently spoke with NBA Scouting Director Ryan Blake about the upcoming draft (June 23). He wouldn’t comment on the potential lockout that looms over the league, but he did share his thoughts on the abundance of point guards, questionable decisions by early entries, and sleeper players, among other things.

This year, 69 underclassmen and 20 international players declared for the NBA Draft. Remember, there are only two rounds—a total of 60 selections—so when you factor in the seniors expected to be chosen you’re left with a lot of kids who should have stayed in school. “It’s been the case for quite some time,” Blake said. “The numbers don’t work out. I try to get the information out to the media because people forget all those guys who came out who didn’t make it. I sort of feel like the grand papa who wants to protect the players who may be making mistakes, but sometimes you can’t do it. These guys are going to do what they want. The guys that are pulled into the draft by advisors who want a piece of them and they get burned and don’t get to live out their dreams, that’s when it hits the heart.

“I’m a percentage guy. You want to create the most opportunities to get that guaranteed money by getting drafted in the first round. On the other hand, it only takes one team to like you.”

And teams often seem to fall in love with players at pre-draft workouts. Instead of taking into account a college career—even if it was just one season—scouts and GMs place too much weight on individual workouts. Blake, though, said that is just part of the evaluation process. “Everything is a circle graph and there are little pieces of the pie that go into any decision. When you get into a team’s war room you’re going to have several scouts and everyone is going to have their own opinion.”

Some scouts/teams are better at evaluating international players, of which there are several that could go in this year’s lottery. “San Antonio has done a good job drafting international players,” Blake said, and guys like Tony Parker (28th pick in 2001) and Manu Ginobli (57th, 1999) come to mind. “Many of these players are under contract, but NBA teams don’t have to offer a buyout. They can store the players and let the foreign teams develop them. If you’re drafting late or have multiple picks, that’s a perfect opportunity to take an international player that is already under contract. It’s an investment that doesn’t cost you anything.”

Many of the international players in this draft are big men, while an unusually large number of the college hopefuls are point guards. Blake thinks some of the underclassmen point guards may have been wise to return to school, as they are not just competing against other early entries but also talented senior point guards like Norris Cole and Nolan Smith. “I think some teams are going to say, ‘I need someone in there who has the proven experience that can come off the bench,’” Blake said.

One of those underclassman point guards is Michigan’s Darius Morris (6’4, 190 pounds), who had an incredible sophomore season (15 ppg, 6.7 apg, 2.28 assist-to-turnover ratio) in leading the Wolverines to a surprise appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Morris does have a glaring weakness, however. “He can’t even find the rim outside of 20 feet,” says Blake, a fact corroborated by Morris’ 25 percent mark on three-pointers. Blake did say Morris does a lot of things well, calling him a “lock-down defender” and a “proven floor general.” But he questions if, without a reliable jumper, Morris has the quickness to get by NBA defenders. Think of Rajon Rondo without his quickness: Is that someone you’d want on the court?

Can Darius Morris drive past NBA defenders, too? (Credit: joshuak8)

Texas freshman Cory Joseph (6’3, 185) is another player in the same realm as Morris, according to Blake. “He can penetrate, he can finish, and he’s a pretty good shooter, but he’s more of a combo guard than a point. If a team is playing small ball at times and using two point guards on the floor, he could fit.” Still, given his unimpressive college numbers (10 points, 3 assists), he’s certainly a risk.

Josh Selby (6’2, 183) will likely get taken before either of these players. A top-ranked player coming of out high school, Selby never blossomed during his one year at Kansas, making him an intriguing prospect. In fact, Selby would have been much better off without the NBA age requirement, as he likely would have been a lottery pick in last year’s draft. Now, he could go anywhere from the middle of the first round to the second round.

Blake had a lot of positive things to say about Selby—athletic, attacks the rim, good body, good range on his jumper—but did say he is more of a combo than a true point and that he can get selfish. “You do have those concerns. His assist-to-turnover ratio wasn’t good and he played for a very good team, so he should have done better in that regard. He’s out because he’s got to get out [Selby left school to prepare for the draft shortly after the season ended and didn’t attend classes this past semester], so we hope for the best for him.”

Like Selby, it’s hard to predict exactly where Boston College junior Reggie Jackson (6’3, 208) will be selected. There aren’t too many points guards with a 7’ wingspan, and Jackson’s jumper did improve quite a bit this past season (50 percent from the field; 42 percent from deep), but Blake said he “needs improvement on his shot selection and while he can play both guard spots he still needs work to become point at the NBA level. His breakout year yields confidence—can he continue to supply this evidence in workouts?”

Moving into lottery-pick talents, Blake, like most everyone, is high on BYU senior point guard Jimmer Fredette (6’2, 195). Blake compared Fredette’s anticipatory skills to Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. “He was relied on to score so much and had the bull’s eye on his back and was still able to score—and it wasn’t running off screens, it was with the ball in his hands. The concern that a lot of people talk about is his defense. In going over tapes, his lateral quickness has to become better, but a lot of times he is just trying to stay out of foul trouble which I think he was instructed to do. So he came from behind screens and didn’t hedge.”

Fredette’s lateral quickness raises concerns, but Blake’s theory on his poor defense certainly has merit—Fredette was simply too valuable to his team to sit on the bench with foul trouble, even if it meant conceding a basket or two on the defensive end. As for whether The Jimmer can star at the next level, Blake reminds us that aside from a very special few, “it rarely happens that a player comes in and is the go-to guy. But he can be a contributor. If he is chosen by a veteran team with a veteran point guard, then he’s got a mentor. Do I think he can make an impact by the end of the year, which is what any team wants to have? Yes, and the sky is the limit after that.”

Another potential lottery pick from the Mountain West Conference is San Diego State sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard (6’7, 225), a high-energy guy who plays hard every possession and was the best player on a very strong San Diego State team. “The guy has a great work ethic. You can never look into a guy’s heart, but you can at least try to gauge it, and it seems Leonard has that going for him.”

Can Kawhi Leonard soar into the lottery? (Credit: SD Dirk)

Blake also highlighted some under-the-radar players who he feels will be chosen in the second round or go undrafted, but will likely make, and contribute to, an NBA team. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all of the players he mentioned are seniors. Among them are:

Diante Garrett (6’4, 190), a point guard from Iowa State. “He played extremely well at the Portsmouth Invitational. He’s an elite athlete with a lot of quickness who can come off the bench and run a team.”

Marquette’s Jimmy Butler (6’7, 220), a small forward who Blake believes can be the Landry Fields or Wesley Matthews of this draft class.

Andrew Goudelock (6’2, 200), a point guard from Charleston, who has shown in workouts that he has a great shooting touch. “He’d be a perfect guy to come off the bench. He’s got great athleticism and was unbelievable at Portsmouth.”

Purdue power forward JaJuan Johnson (6’10, 221), who “nobody is talking about even though he was Big Ten player of the year. He has improved so much every year and although he is thin he can spread defenses.”

Blake also mentioned Leonard’s frontcourt teammate Malcolm Thomas (6’9, 220) and Florida power forward Vernon Macklin (6’10, 245).

As noted earlier, Blake would not comment on the lockout situation. However, with the NBA summer league already cancelled, it is certainly possible that some players returned to school fearing there may be no NBA season next year. Scanning the list of stars who returned—Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones, Perry Jones, John Henson, Harrison Barnes, to name five who may have been lottery picks—and you have to wonder if they caught wind of a lockout. On the flipside, this left vacant slots in the draft for other players previously considered questionable candidates.

Butler Loses to UConn in National Championship

“Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

Oh, right, I don’t have to steal a lede because the mid-major school with the enrollment of 3,600 and basketball budget that just this season cracked the top 100 (but still ranks just 98) did not win the national championship. Then again, perhaps the fact that it found itself in the game for the second straight year warrants its inclusion. Butler did a lot of things more difficult than beating Connecticut in the past two seasons, but Butler did not beat Connecticut so here we are.

If you wanted a thorough breakdown of the game itself, you came to the wrong place. Then again, where would you go for such a thing? I’d say the box score does the trick. Butler could not put the ball in the basket—not from close (3-for-31), from far (9-of-33 on threes), or even that well when there was literally no defense (8-of-14 from the free throw line).

Butler star Shelvin Mack had scored 24 in the semifinal game just two days before, his third time scoring at least that many in this Tournament, but he missed two open layups in the first few possessions that proved to be foretelling. The Bulldogs led 25-19 after hitting a three to open the half, but then shot an unfathomably bad 1-of-23 over a 13 minute span, scoring just three points as UConn built a 13-point lead.

I’d say this best sums up Butler’s offensive woes: Two days later, I can recall every two-point basket (who made it, where they were on the floor) and could probably reconstruct most of the threes, too, if I really thought about it.

It’s a testament to how good the Bulldogs are at other phases of the game that at the under-12 media timeout in the second half they were only down five. But at the end Butler was down 11, 53-41, in the lowest scoring national championship game since 1949.

So Butler does not get to put a national title banner in Hinkle Fieldhouse but it does get to hang another Final Four banner, and that is utterly remarkable. Butler trailed by six to UTEP in its opening round game of last year’s NCAA Tournament, then played tight games with Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State before losing to Duke. This year, as an 8-seed, the Bulldogs beat Old Dominion at the buzzer, knocked off Pitt by one in a game analysts are still trying to understand, and, later, topped Florida in overtime.

Much of America was hoping this year’s title game would be a lot like the 2010 version except, you know, Butler would win. The stars certainly seemed aligned as UConn was a weaker foe than Duke. Of course the opponent becomes inconsequential when you can’t make a basket.

But I urge you, regardless of your level of college basketball fandom, to remember Butler not for its inability to play well in one particular game, but its ability to play extremely well in so many other games these past two years. It is extraordinarily difficult to navigate through an NCAA Tournament, as Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Kansas, and so many other really good teams found out this year and every year. Butler managed to do it twice, coming up just one win short each time.

You could look at Monday night as a missed opportunity, as a second chance that is rarely given in sports, especially sports that crown their champion through a single elimination, month-long tournament. And, in many ways, it was that. But Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs capitalized on so many other opportunities that will have far more lasting effects than a win would have.

I hope you enjoyed the ride.

NCAA Tournament 2011: Final Four Preview

(Credit: NCAA)

The 2011 Final Four in Houston will be a memorable one. We know this before the games are even played because of the teams involved: Kentucky, which will play Connecticut, and Butler, which faces Virginia Commonwealth. In a year when you should be proud of yourself for correctly predicting one Final Four team and should get your own college hoops radio show if you got two, let’s take a look at some of the facts, figures, and other tidbits relating to the 2011 Final Four.

  • As far as seeds, this is the highest cumulative number in a Final Four (11 + 8 + 4 + 3 = 26), breaking the previous high of 22 in 2000.
  • Two of the teams were unranked in the preseason polls: UConn and VCU. Kentucky, ranked 10/11 in the preseason, remained in the polls all season while Butler (preseason 17/18) fell out after two weeks and never returned. UConn entered the polls in Week 4 and never left. According to TheresAStatForThat.blogspot.com, this is only the fifth time since 1989 (when the polls expanded to 25 teams) that a Final Four matchup features teams unranked at any point during the season (and, as noted, in this case neither was ranked for all but two weeks of the season).
  • This is the first time there is no 1 or 2 seed in the Final Four. Three 1 or 2 seeds played in regional finals (Kansas, North Carolina, and Florida), but all lost to lower seeds.
  • This is the first time since the Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that two teams outside of the BCS conferences are in the Final Four (and first time since 1979, when Indiana State and Penn both made it).
  • Butler coach Brad Stevens is 34. VCU coach Shaka Smart is 33. Those two ages combined do not reach 68, the age of UConn coach Jim Calhoun. It could be the lowest combined age of coaches in a Final Four matchup, but I’m not certain of that.
  • Two of the teams—UConn and VCU—were not in the Tournament last year. The two that were, however, did quite well. Kentucky lost in the Elite 8 and Butler, as I’m sure you remember, was the national runner-up.
  • There are probably not a ton of future NBA players in this year’s group, especially on the right side of the bracket, which is unusual. According to The Wall Street Journal, 94 of the 96 teams that reached the Final Four between 1985 and 2008 had at least one player who eventually appeared in an NBA game. In fact, 91 percent of the teams over that span had at least two such players and the majority of teams had at least four. Kentucky and UConn are both young teams but appear to fit the mold, while Butler and VCU certainly do not. Both teams have just two players each on ESPN’s draft tracker, and all four of those players are listed as “second round to undrafted.” Neither NBADraft.net nor DraftExpress.com have any Butler or VCU players getting selected in their 2011 mock drafts.
  • Only VCU did not win its conference tournament, as the Rams lost in the CAA finals, but given their extra NCAA Tourney game, they are on a five-game win streak. UConn had its historic run in the Big East tournament, winning five games in five days, so the Huskies enter Houston on a nine-game win streak. Kentucky’s streak is at 10, while Butler’s is at an impressive 13.

Kentucky Wildcats

  • John Calipari is taking his third team to the Final Four (UMass and Memphis were the others), joining Rick Pitino (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) as the only coach ever to do that. Calipari’s previous two appearances were eventually vacated.
  • Kentucky has already gone one step further than it did last season despite losing five players (four freshmen and a junior) in last year’s NBA Draft.
  • Young teams have more room for improvement, and Kentucky has certainly improved as the season has progressed. Evidence of this is UK’s win over North Carolina in the regional final, as the Cats had lost to UNC earlier in the season. Kentucky will get a chance to prove this again on Saturday—they also lost to UConn, 84-67, back in November.
  • Darius Miller was a starter last season and DeAndre Liggins played 15 minutes a game, but the other four players in Kentucky’s rotation have little big-game experience. Three are freshmen and the other is Josh Harrellson, a senior who averaged just four minutes per game last season and played a total of six in last year’s Tourney.
  • Speaking of Harrellson, where did this guy come from? He has upped his season averages in all major categories, tallying 14.7 points and 9 rebounds a game in the Tournament. Most impressive was his ability to guard Ohio State All-America center Jared Sullinger one-on-one, which allowed the rest of the Kentucky defenders to stay home on OSU’s deadly three-point shooters. I realize last year’s squad was loaded with talent—including two frontcourt players that were lottery picks—but I find it hard to believe that Harrellson couldn’t have contributed. Then again, I have not coached three different schools to the Final Four.

Connecticut Huskies

  • This is UConn’s fourth appearance in the Final Four (all under Jim Calhoun) and all four times the Huskies have emerged from the West Region.
  • UConn is now 12-0 in tournament games this season, having won three to claim the Maui Invitational title, five to win the Big East tournament, and four so far in the Big Dance.
  • UConn has not lost an out of conference game this season (15-0).
  • Of the names that have surfaced over the course of the season for Player of the Year—Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Jared Sullginer, Nolan Smith—only Walker is still playing. (That being said, Jimmer is still going to win the award.)
  • Walker is the unquestioned leader of this very young UConn squad. According to KenPom.com’s experience rating, which takes into account minutes played, the Huskies rank 332 out of 345 teams, second lowest among BCS schools.
  • I questioned whether UConn’s season had peaked in Madison Square Garden for the conference tournament and if the Huskies had anything in the tank for the Big Dance. Boy was that silly.

Butler Bulldogs

  • When Gordon Hayward declared for the NBA Draft, the national sentiment was, “That’s too bad, this team could’ve made a serious run next year, too.” Instead, following somewhat of a similar script to last year—ranked in preseason, written off in regular season, improbable run to Final Four—the Bulldogs have wowed the nation again.
  • It’s been said a lot already, including multiple times by my roommate Ryan, who picked Butler to reach Houston, but here it is again: This year’s Butler is…Butler!
  • Brad Stevens is the youngest coach to reach two Final Fours. His calm sideline demeanor has been a big reason why. In Underdawgs, a book by Indianapolis Star columnist David Woods about Butler’s memorable run last season, I learned that Stevens often settles his team in late-game huddles by telling them, “We’re going to win this game.” Consecutive Final Fours seem wildly improbable to outsiders, but to those within the Butler program it was expected. To expect and to achieve are two very different things, but it’s hard to do the latter without believing you can.
  • Butler has the most big game experience of any of the Final Four teams and it’s not even close.
  • Here is my thoroughly detailed, heavily researched analysis of Butler’s offense: Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard can get you 20 points each, and the others chip in here and there and somehow at the end of the game they have more points than the other team.

Virginia Commonwealth Rams

  • VCU is the first team to win five games to reach the Final Four. From the First Four to the Final Four—truly remarkable.
  • As an 11 seed, VCU has tied the mark for the highest seed to reach the Final Four. LSU in 1986 and George Mason (more on them later) in 2006 are the others.
  • VCU has been the most dominant team in the Tournament. I repeat: VCU has been the most dominant team in the Tournament. The Rams have won their five Tourney games by margins of 13, 18, 18, 1 (overtime), and 10, an average margin of 15. They’ve been putting teams away early, too, holding a double-digit halftime lead in three of those games. These would be impressive performances by a 1 seed, and is absolutely mind-blowing for an 11 seed.
  • I don’t think this is as big a deal as others are making it out to be, but VCU has defeated teams from the Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12 en route to the Final Four. It will now face a team from the Horizon with a chance to play an SEC school in the finals.
  • Shaka Smart, in just his second season as a head coach after serving as an assistant at Florida, Clemson, and Akron, seems to be a great tournament coach. You know what he’s done this season, but last year VCU won the College Basketball Invitational (CBI).
  • Wait, VCU was in the CBI last year? Yes, and it’s yet another fact that underscores how improbable this run really is. People made a big deal of UNC’s turnaround—the Heels were one game away from the Final Four after not qualifying for the Tourney last year—but they went to the finals of the NIT. What Smart has done in year two is incredible.
  • This explains why most of the Rams did not bother to watch the Selection Show.
  • The obvious comparison is to George Mason, a fellow Colonial team that got a questionable at-large bid and marched to the Final Four as an 11 seed. A key difference, if I recall correctly, is that Mason was viewed as a dangerous team entering the Dance. The invitation still came as a surprise after the early exit from the CAA tournament, but many felt George Mason had a team capable of pulling off an upset or two. The same can’t be said of VCU, which was viewed as undeserving and not all that good.
  • I was not in favor of expanding the field and VCU’s run does not change my opinion. However, the Rams’ Tournament run has been unbelievably exciting and had the field not expanded, they almost certainly would not have received a bid, so it’s not all bad.
  • There is a very fine line between making the Final Four and getting bounced earlier in the Tournament. Kentucky needed a basket with two seconds left to beat Princeton by two in its opening game. It got another basket in the final seconds to beat Ohio State in the Sweet 16. UConn led by just one with less than two minutes left against San Diego State and survived two three-point attempts in the closing seconds that would have given Arizona a win in the regional final. Butler has been on a wild ride, beating Old Dominion at the buzzer, Pittsburgh by one, and Florida by three in overtime. VCU, of course, was one of the last teams invited to the Tournament.

Related Articles:

UConn’s path to Final Four
Kentucky’s path to Final Four
Butler’s path to Final Four

Ohio State vs Kentucky, UNC vs Marquette: Sweet 16 East Region Preview

On Friday night, the Sweet 16 games continue in the Southwest region and East region. In the latter, played in Newark, New Jersey, the North Carolina Tar Heels play the Marquette Golden Eagles (7:15 EST, CBS) while the Ohio State Buckeys take on the Kentucky Wildcats (9:45, CBS). The winners meet for the right to go to the Final Four in Houston, where they’ll face the winner of the West region.

Below is a preview of the four teams (with the seed noted), outlining how each school advanced through the bracket as well as their strengths and weaknesses. There are also anecdotes from my trip to Las Vegas last weekend for the first two rounds of the Tournament.

No. 1 Ohio State
How they got here: By being the dominant team that people thought didn’t exist this season. Seriously, did those claiming there was no truly great team not watch the Buckeyes? Ohio State dismantled 16 seed UT-San Antonio by 29 points, then went and beat George Mason (an 8 seed) by even more, winning 98-66.

The victory over the Patriots in the second round (what CBS and the NCAA will try to fool you into believing is the third round) was beyond impressive. Ohio State shot 61 percent from the field and from deep, hitting 16-of-26 three-pointers. George Mason might have done better playing no defense at all, as the Buckeyes made just 55 percent (10-of-18) of their free throws.

In their two Tourney games, David Lighty has hit nine three-pointers, Jon Diebler eight, and William Buford seven. This long-range barrage is happening with the nation’s best big man, Jared Sullinger, manning the paint, and is why Ohio State is an offensive juggernaut capable of cutting down the nets in Houston.

Why you should have seen it coming: The success is nothing new. Ohio State entered the Tournament with a 32-2 record and ranked No. 1 in the country. The Buckeyes were placed in what many considered to be the toughest region, but one seeds rarely exit before the second weekend.

David Lighty was on the OSU team that went to the finals in 2007. (Credit: Ohio State Athletics)

Why they may not go much further: The above praise was warranted, but Kentucky is the type of team that could give Ohio State a run. The Wildcats excel in the half court and can push the tempo when they choose; basically, they can score a lot of points, and that’s what it will take to upset Ohio State. Potential regional final opponent North Carolina can do the same. In the Buckeyes’ two losses this season, an opposing guard just went off. Kentucky and UNC both have potential future lottery picks that might be able to assume that role.

Vegas anecdote: Ohio State opened as an 11.5-point favorite against George Mason, and I thought the underdog could give the Buckeyes a serious challenge. When I got to the betting window, the line had dropped a half point, to 11. I bet on George Mason anyway. If only the line had swung 21 points the other way, I would have won.

Bonus Vegas anecdote: Sitting at the Paris sportsbook watching the Buckeyes systemically destroy George Mason, a gentleman next to me started talking about how dominant they were. He mentioned forward Dallas Lauderdale, the least heralded Buckeye starter. Lauderdale, a senior bruiser, is often replaced by Aaron Craft, the team’s only true point guard, by the first media timeout. “That guy would start for any other team in the country,” the man said, referring to Lauderdale. Yes, even Ohio State!

No. 4 Kentucky
How they got here: On the strength John Calipari’s seemingly endless line of great freshman point guards. Brandon Knight was scoreless against 13 seed Princeton for nearly 40 minutes, having missed all seven of his shots, but his driving layup with two seconds remaining gave Kentucky a 59-57 victory in a game that was close throughout. Two days later, against the team that eliminated the Wildcats in last year’s regional final, West Virginia, Knight was brilliant throughout, scoring a career-high 30 points in a 71-63 win. Josh Harrellson, Kentucky’s lone senior, has scored 15 in each game, double his season average.

Why you should have seen it coming: The Wildcats came in hot, winning six in a row, including a decisive victory in the SEC championship game over Florida. Kentucky’s top three scorers are freshmen, and freshmen are typically going to improve more over the course of a season than upperclassmen. In other words, the Cats were only going to get better, and John Calipari is no stranger to Tournament success. (Note: The previous eight words have been stricken from the record by the NCAA.)

Why they may not go much further: Midway through the second half of the SEC title game many were probably considering Kentucky as a sleeper Final Four team. That likely changed once the brackets came out later that evening. Ohio State is the No. 1 overall seed for a reason, and the young Wildcats will need a tremendous effort to beat the Bucks.

Vegas anecdote: My friend Danny, who I referenced in my 2010 March Madness diary, liked Princeton and the 13 points they were getting as his lock of the first round. I bet on Kentucky. This is why I bet a lot less money than Danny does.

No. 2 North Carolina
How they got here: By dominating the paint in a 102-87 shootout against 15 seed Long Island and making enough plays down the stretch to hold off 7 seed Washington 86-83 in round two. In game one, Carolina got 84 points out of its three starting frontcourt players and dominated the boards (52-36). But the game wasn’t a blowout because the Heels made just 3-of-17 three-pointers and committed 18 turnovers. They played a more complete game against the Huskies in what turned out to be a wild ending.

Why you should have seen it coming: Since freshman Kendall Marshall became the starting point guard in mid-January, the Heels were 15-2 entering the Big Dance, with the only losses coming to Duke. The team basically had to be reevaluated after mediocre start, and all signs indicated this team had the firepower to reach Houston. With three starters that could be first round NBA draft picks this year and size that few teams can match, it would have been very surprising if this squad didn’t reach the second weekend.

Harrison Barnes of UNC is one of many standout freshmen in this region. (Credit: Niirvash)

Why they may not go much further: Carolina is expected to beat Marquette, but a regional final matchup with Ohio State would be a tall task. If Kentucky can upset the Buckeyes, however, Carolina would get to play a team it beat already this season.

Vegas anecdote: I was on the betting line ready to take Long Island (local team, sort of) in the first half against UNC, but because one of the bettors in front of me was apparently placing wagers on the NBA, golf, and NASCAR in addition to the Tournament, the game started before I could make my bet. I can’t remember exactly how many points LIU was getting—it was 9 or 10—but I know I was mad because for most of the first half it seemed like the bet was going to be a winner. But in the final few minutes, the Tar Heels pulled away to take an 11-point halftime lead, which meant I would’ve lost my bet. Later that night, I saw the guy who held me up on line (he was in the hot dog line, likely delaying that, too) but decided not to thank him for inadvertently saving me a few bucks.

No. 11 Marquette
How they got here: By pulling off two upsets, first against Xavier and then against Big East foe Syracuse, a three seed. The Golden Eagles never trailed against Xavier, but their second-round game was much different. The margin was one possession for most of the second half, but Darius Johnson-Odom’s three with 27 seconds left broke a tie and propelled Marquette to a 66-62 victory. Johnson-Odoms scored 19 and 17 in the first two Tourney games.

Why you should have seen it coming: This is a tough sell. Marquette was the 11 seed in the Big East Tournament, where it won a couple of games, and, off the strength of its overall resume, received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament (where it also received an 11 seed). But if you thought the Big East was a really, really strong conference—as many did, at least before last weekend—then Marquette’s .500 record (plus the two league tourney wins) and wins over Syracuse, West Virginia (twice), and UConn probably impressed you.

Why they may not go much further: If you thought the Big East was overrated all season—or you turned on the conference after last weekend—you might be thinking Marquette got a favorable draw by facing Xavier and then another Big East team, Syracuse, and now it’s time for them to bow out of the Dance. But it’s not about conferences, it’s about teams, and the remaining teams in the East region are all better than Marquette. I like coach Buzz Williams, but if North Carolina has been preparing itself in the last few days, its edge in talent will be tough to overcome.

Vegas anecdote: When it became clear that Marquette was going to beat Xavier, the conference bashing began. “The A-10 sucks,” one disgruntled bettor said. “This is the best team in the league?” another asked. It happens every year, albeit with different teams/conferences. Xavier breezed through the Atlantic 10, finishing in first with a 15-1 record. They did get bounced by Dayton in the opening round of the conference tourney, however.

Meanwhile, Temple won a game before falling to a 2 seed in double overtime, and Richmond is still alive, making the A-10’s showing in this year’s Dance very respectable. It’s silly when people point to one team’s failures as proof that the entire conference is weak. And given that it’s only one weekend’s worth of games, it’s silly to do it even if a larger group of teams struggle.

Wisconsin vs Butler, Florida vs BYU: Sweet 16 Southeast Region Preview

3/25 Update, Postgame Reaction:

Butler 61, Wisconsin 54
When I first got off the escalator at McCarran airport and entered the luggage claim/ground transportation level, I saw a limo driver with a sign that read “Hayward.” No, Brad Stevens was not the driver, and Gordon Hayward certainly was not walking through that door at New Orleans Arena.

Butler didn’t need him. When you hold your opponent to 27 points through essentially three quarters, you can get by with just two superstars instead of three. And make no mistake about it, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard are superstars—hard to find a better inside-out scoring duo.

In my preview I wrote that Butler and Wisconsin were similar, but that the Badgers were more efficient in their execution. That sure wasn’t the case last night. I’d like to look into this more in the near future, but Wisconsin’s epically bad shooting performances are almost unfathomable. Last night was very similar to their 36-33 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament. Butler lost its focus in the final few minutes, perhaps thinking the outcome was a given at that point (it was), otherwise Wisconsin’s final output would have been even worse.

Some of the late-game breakdowns aside, can you say anything bad about Stevens and the Bulldogs? This was at least the ninth straight Tourney game in which they seemed so prepared, so poised, and so fun to watch if you’re a basketball purist. They were underdogs against Old Dominion, underdogs against Pittsburgh, and underdogs against Wisconsin. They’ll be underdogs against Florida, too. If the Bulldogs manage to win and you’re surprised, you haven’t been watching them the last couple of years.

On Thursday night, the Sweet 16 games get underway in the West region and Southeast region. In the latter, played in New Orleans, the BYU Cougars play the Florida Gators (7:27 EST, TBS) while the Wisconsin Badgers take on the Butler Bulldogs (9:57, TBS). The winners meet for the right to go to the Final Four in Houston.

Below is a preview of the four teams (with the seed noted), outlining how each school advanced through the bracket as well as their strengths and weaknesses. There are also anecdotes from my trip to Las Vegas last weekend for the first two rounds of the Tournament.

No. 4 Wisconsin
How they got here: By being the incredibly efficient team they’ve been all season, aiming for substance over style on nearly every possession. Wisconsin’s first opponent, 13 seed Belmont, was a popular upset pick. The Bruins had won 30 games and played a frenetic style that couldn’t be more different from Wisconsin’s. Something had to give, and it was Belmont, which fell to the Badgers 72-58. The Bruins couldn’t get out in transition, and while the Badgers milked the shot clock on nearly every possession, they still shot 50 percent from the floor and 12-of-22 from deep.

Jordan Taylor was badly outplayed by Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen in Round Two, but Wisconsin turned it over just five times and hung on for a 70-65 win. Wisconsin’s other star, Jon Leuer, has scored 22 and 19 points thus far.

Why you should have seen it coming: Wisconsin had two ugly, ugly losses entering the Tournament, but it showed its potential to be an elite team when it beat No. 1 Ohio State in mid-February. Casual fans label Bo Ryan’s style of play as B-O-R-I-N-G, but scoring on a higher percentage of possessions than most every team in the country is what makes Wisconsin so good. This is an easy team to overlook, but not an easy one to overmatch, as two very good teams found out last weekend.

Bo Ryan pretty much always looks like this. (Credit: Lukas Keapproth)

Why they may not go much further: Remember those ugly, ugly losses I mentioned? Yeah, they were ugly. Hard to criticize a team for losing to Ohio State, but a 28-point loss usually doesn’t show up on the resume of an elite team. The Badgers followed that up with a memorable (for all the wrong reasons) performance against Penn State in the Big Ten tournament, losing 36-33. Wisconsin shot 2-of-21 from three in that game. Butler won’t be discouraged by Wisconsin’s slow pace, and Florida or BYU could simply outscore them.

Vegas anecdote: The Wisconsin fans sitting in the row behind us were very friendly. They put up with our criticisms of their star player (Taylor was 2-for-16 from the field while his point guard counterpart scored 38 points!) and even seemed entertained by our fickle support. This wasn’t much of an anecdote, but you had teams from Wisconsin and Kansas, so what did you expect?

No. 8 Butler
How they got here: By adhering to The Butler Way, which lately means winning extremely close games, often in improbable fashion, to put yourself two wins away from a second straight Final Four.

Given an 8 seed, the likelihood of surviving the first weekend seemed dismal, especially since opening round opponent Old Dominion was projected as another very dangerous team. But Matt Howard’s put-back at the buzzer lifted the Bulldogs to a 60-58 win over ODU, and in one of the strangest finishes you’ll ever see in a basketball game, Butler defeated top-seeded Pittsburgh 71-70. Shelvin Mack dropped 30 points in the game, a Butler Tournament record, hitting 7-of-12 three-pointers.

Why you should have seen it coming: Do you believe in Butler magic? I’ll admit, just before this year’s Tournament started I read Underdawgs, a book on Butler’s inspiring run to last year’s NCAA title game, and I still didn’t think the Bulldogs could knock off Pitt. Without Gordon Hayward, last season’s leading scorer and rebounder, it seemed this team just didn’t have enough firepower.

In early February, after a three-game losing streak in the Horizon and with no signature nonconference wins (though the win over Florida State looks pretty good now), Butler was 14-9 and in danger of missing the Tournament. That’s when the Bulldogs rattled off nine straight victories, entering the Dance as one of the hottest teams in the country.

Why they may not go much further: It’s silly to bet against the magic at this point, but Wisconsin is a team that will do a lot of the things Butler does, except better. The Badgers have big men that aren’t simply space eaters in the paint—they won’t be afraid to venture outside the lane with Howard. This one could go either way, as could Butler’s next game against BYU or Florida. Including these two Tourney wins, the Bulldogs have won six straight as an underdog, so either their magical roll will continue or their luck will finally run out.

Vegas anecdote: It seemed like I was the only person in the theater who backed Butler in the first round, which really shocked me. I understood Old Dominion was a very good team, but when Vegas made the Monarchs a two-point favorite I didn’t see the value. In Butler’s second game, I think everyone was too confused by the final seconds to worry about their particular bet.

No. 2 Florida
How they got here: By getting two huge games from 5’8” Erving Walker, the guard from Brooklyn with a knack for hitting big shots. Walker led Florida with 18 points, including four-of-six from deep, in an opening round rout. The Gators didn’t really need him against a woefully overmatched UC-Santa Barbara squad, winning 79-51. They sure relied on him against 7 seed UCLA though. He scored Florida’s last seven points—a three-pointer with 1:15 left to push the lead to four and four free throws to seal the deal. He finished with 21.

Why you should have seen it coming: The Gators were on the national radar in February, when they went on a six-game winning streak in the SEC, a run that included victories over four teams destined for the Big Dance. A blowout loss to Kentucky in the conference tournament final didn’t prevent Florida from getting a 2 seed, making it a safe bet to reach the Sweet 16.

Why they may not go much further: Are you going to bet against Jimmer? BYU is next up for the Gators and it certainly doesn’t help that Florida’s best perimeter defender, Kenny Boynton, sprained his ankle against UCLA, though he is expected to play. Keep in mind that it was BYU that eliminated Florida from last year’s Tournament (in double overtime). Wisconsin and Butler are experienced teams that would likely play Florida close to the final minute should the Gators advance.

Vegas anecdote: I was playing Pai Gow while watching the Florida-UCLA game, and the dealer continuously berated me for not playing the bonus. Whenever my hand failed to make three-of-a-kind or better, which was more often than not, she said nothing, but any time I made a good hand she would tap her finger inside the bonus betting circle and say, “Should’ve played bonus.” I’d like to thank Billy Donovan’s team for putting me in a good mood. Had Florida lost, I may not have been so patient with the critical dealer.

No. 3 BYU
How they got here: Jimmer. Jimmer. Jimmer. Jimmer. I could really write this for every section. It would be lazy, but accurate. Fredette (this is the last time I’ll use his last name, I promise) dropped 32 on Wofford (a 13 seed) and 34 on Gonzaga (an 11 seed). He wasn’t too efficient in the opener, an eight-point win, but converted 7-of-12 from downtown against the Zags in an 89-67 blowout.

Why you should have seen it coming: Coming off one of the biggest wins in program history against San Diego State, BYU lost Brandon Davies and then lost to New Mexico by 18. The Cougars regrouped, winning three in a row (including a win over New Mexico) and reaching the Mountain West tournament final. This didn’t quell all doubts, but it proved BYU was still a capable team. And when you have the nation’s leading scorer, you’re a threat to make a Tourney run.

It seems like Jimmer has just as easy a time doing this from 25 feet. (Credit: Lelavr)

Why they may not go much further: I really liked this team, so I was saddened by Davies’ suspension because I felt it ended BYU’s chances of a serious Tourney run. This team had a very legitimate shot at a Final Four, but without their lone inside presence I figured they could struggle to get through the opening weekend. The Cougs have done that, but you’ve got to assume Florida has learned from last year’s Tourney matchup, when Jimmer scored 37. There are teams in the MWC that play BYU multiple times a year and still have no clue how to slow Jimmer, but the Gators are a complete team that should be able to control the paint. Butler and Wisconsin have quality big men as well. No matter how it turns out for BYU, it will be fun to watch.

Vegas anecdote: BYU was an 8.5-point favorite in its opener against Wofford. The Cougars were up 11 with the ball and could just about run out the clock on the Terriers. BYU fans/bettors voiced their support, but then, for some reason, Jimmer hoisted a 30 footer, which missed everything. You could feel the tension rise in the theater as Wofford guard Cameron Rundles drove baseline but passed on a layup, opting to kick it out to teammate Terry Martin instead. Bettors screamed “Noooo!” as Martin released a three-pointer as time expired, and sure enough, buried it to make the margin eight and give Wofford the cover.

Duke vs Arizona, UConn vs San Diego St: Sweet 16 West Region Preview

3/25 Update, Postgame Reaction:

Connecticut 74, San Diego State 67
I’ll quickly review some questionable strategy before getting to the controversy. The UConn Huskies, and their star, Kemba Walker, are great in transition. San Diego State, despite what you may have heard from last night’s TV announcers, prefers to play a half court game. It has athletic, versatile big men that can, at times, electrify on the break, but that is certainly not the Aztecs’ strength.

So it was baffling why Steve Fisher’s squad tried to run with the Huskies in the first half last night. It led to a lot of careless turnovers and a 36-37 halftime deficit. A coach once told me it could be a pride thing—players wanting to show they can run with the opponent—so maybe that was a factor.

Equally questionable was UConn’s decision to slow the tempo for large stretches of the second half. That played right into the hands of San Diego State, which was able to tie the game before the second media timeout. When reserve Jamaal Franklin stole the inbounds pass and found Billy White inside to give the Aztecs a 53-49 lead, Jim Calhoun called timeout.

Commence controversy.

The basket came on the right side of the court and the San Diego State players had retreated back on defense, so most of them had to cross half court to return to their bench. Likewise, the UConn players had to cross the Aztecs’ path to return to their bench on the other side of the court.

This happens all the time in college basketball: one team (often including its bench players) celebrates while the other team dejectedly returns to its bench. This was the case at the 9:20 mark of this game, but what made it unique is that when Franklin and Walker bumped shoulders, Walker fell to the floor as if he had been tackled by a linebacker. We see this type of acting all the time when players are trying to draw a charge, but that is during actual game action.

My initial disgust was directed towards Walker, but he is certainly free to attempt a stunt like this. The blame lies with the officials who decided a technical foul should be assessed to Franklin. Some will point out that Walker didn’t even see Franklin coming, but slow-motion replays showed that was because Walker was too busy jawing with another San Diego State player.

Things did not go well for the Aztecs after this incident, as they found themselves on the wrong side of an 11-1 run to go down 60-54. Even then they had six minutes to respond, so saying the technical foul was a complete game-changer is a bit unfair. But it was certainly an unfortunate call, yet another in a March that seems to be dominated by them.

Arizona 93, Duke 77
I can’t say I saw the Duke-Arizona result coming. The fact that the Wildcats won was not a shocker—Michigan doesn’t have the talent of Arizona yet came within a basket of eliminating the Blue Devils, and exposed some of their deficiencies in the process.

Duke doesn’t quite have the supporting cast to withstand a poor performance from one of its stars—Nolan Smith shot 3-for-14—especially when it comes on the same night the opposition scored at will. Derrick Williams scored 25 of his 32 points in the first half to keep ’Zona within striking distance. In the second half, the rest of the Wildcats came alive, as Arizona went on a 19-2 run to seize control and run away with the victory.

Original Post:
On Thursday night, the Sweet 16 games get underway in the West region and Southeast region. In the West region, played in Anaheim, California, the Connecticut Huskies play the San Diego State Aztecs (7:15 EST, CBS) while the Duke Blue Devils take on the Arizona Wildcats (9:45, CBS). The winners meet for the right to go to the Final Four in Houston.

Below is a preview of the four teams (with the seed noted), outlining how each school advanced through the bracket as well as their strengths and weaknesses. There are also anecdotes from my trip to Las Vegas last weekend for the first two rounds of the Tournament.

No. 1 Duke
How they got here: By benefitting from the surprise return of Kyrie Irving, who had been sitting since Dec. 4 with a foot injury. The star freshman point guard led Duke with 14 points in a 42-point demolishing of Hampton, then scored 11, including Duke’s final field goal, to help the Blue Devils survive a pesky Michigan team 73-71.

Why you should have seen it coming: Is a Sweet 16 appearance ever surprising for Duke? Public opinion seemed to be split over whether the Blue Devils would face an athletic Tennessee team that had knocked off another No. 1 seed, Pitt, earlier in the season, or the Wolverines, whose changing defenses and complex offense can be difficult for even the more talented opponents to solve. It was the latter, and while Michigan gave the Dukies all they could handle, Coach K has a veteran team that isn’t easily rattled. And if you knew that not only would Irving return, but that he’d somehow look pretty darn good, then you probably picked Duke to reach Houston.

Why they may not go much further: The victory over Michigan wasn’t exactly convincing, as the baby Wolverines had a great look in the lane that would have sent the game to overtime. Leading by 15 with less than 11 minutes remaining, Duke couldn’t put Michigan away, struggling against the 1-3-1 zone.

The games only get tougher from here, as Duke leaves the friendly confines of North Carolina and heads west to face Derrick Williams and Arizona before a potential matchup with Kemba Walker and red-hot UConn or underrated San Diego State (remember, in California). Duke has already attempted 39 three-pointers in this Tourney, and another poor shooting performance like the one against Michigan (5-for-20 from deep) could lead to the end for the Blue Devils.

Vegas anecdote: A co-worker of mine went to Hampton, so I was prepared to take the 20+ points I was sure to get and bet against Duke in Round One. Standing in line, a fellow bettor told me he saw Hampton’s conference championship game and “they looked horrible.” Horrible enough to lose by 25? “Absolutely,” he said. That, coupled with my co-worker saying it was “unfair” that her alma mater had to play a basketball powerhouse like Duke, led me to stay away from the game, which proved to be a wise decision.

No. 5 Arizona
How they got here: On the broad shoulders of sophomore forward Derrick Williams, who made game-winning plays in each of Arizona’s first two contests. In a battle with 12 seed Memphis, Wesley Witherspoon grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed free throw and attempted a layup that would have sent the game to overtime, but Williams came out of nowhere to swat away the shot and preserve the victory.

Two days later, in what was a wild and controversial finish against 4 seed Texas, Williams drove to the hoop and completed an improbable and-one basket, making the foul shot to give the Wildcats a one-point lead with less than 10 seconds remaining. On Texas’ ensuing possession, Williams soared high to challenge the shot attempt at the buzzer to seal the victory.

Why you should have seen it coming: You’ve heard it before: Big players make big plays in big games. That’s exactly what Williams did in the opening weekend and is why he’s considered to be a top pick in the NBA draft. When a team has a superstar, you always have to assume he can carry the team for a couple of rounds.

Why they may not go much further: Arizona earned its spot in the Sweet 16, but it was certainly aided by a late-game meltdown by Texas. The Wildcats can’t expect Duke to do the same. The Blue Devils don’t have one player who can match Williams in the post, but they have enough big bodies to perhaps slow him down, and that could spell trouble for ’Zona.

Vegas anecdote: Arizona always has a lot of fans in Vegas, as many as any other school, and they were loud and proud when the Wildcats overcame a sluggish start to take the lead against Memphis. While Arizona held on for the win, it did not cover, leading to the always interesting bittersweet fan reaction: happy their team is advancing, but upset they can’t cash their tickets. Ah, the joys of sports betting.

No. 2 San Diego State
How they got here: By getting the March Madness monkey off their back, beating Northern Colorado for its first ever NCAA Tournament victory, and following it up with a double-overtime win over 7 seed Temple. The Aztecs, as they have all season, excelled on the defensive end, limiting the Bears to 33 percent shooting and Temple to 38 percent. They outrebounded the two opponents by a total of 21.

Why you should have seen it coming: The Mountain West Conference was strong this year, so the Aztecs’ 14-2 league record (with both losses coming against BYU) and conference tournament championship was impressive. Oh, and San Diego St. went undefeated out of conference, including a victory at Gonzaga. They have a potential NBA lottery pick in sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard, who leads an extremely athletic frontcourt. The Aztecs have three senior starters, including clutch-shooting point guard D.J. Gay.

Why they may not go much further: The Aztecs sometimes struggle offensively, at least when compared to other teams vying for a spot in Houston. They scored just 18 points in the second half against Temple. The starting backcourt of Gay and Chase Tapley, along with reserve James Rahon, will have to provide enough perimeter scoring to at least come close to matching what UConn and potentially Duke can do offensively.

Vegas anecdote: San Diego St. provided my most memorable Tourney game of the weekend. While my friends and I wanted the Aztecs to win—for betting purposes and as fans of the team—we also wanted them to cover the 5.5-point spread, something that didn’t seem likely as the game went into the first and then second overtime. But Leonard’s two free throws put San Diego St. up five, and his steal and breakaway dunk with 20 seconds left gave the Aztecs the magical seven-point lead. This led to rowdy rejoicing—among friends and strangers alike—in the aisle of the Hilton theater.

No. 3 Connecticut
How they got here: By showing absolutely no hangover effects from a five-wins-in-five-days Big East tournament run. UConn opened on Thursday, just five days after their improbable march in Madison Square Garden, and walloped Bucknell, taking a 17-point halftime lead en route to an 81-52 victory. They led by just three against fellow Big East member Cincinnati with less than five minutes left, but pulled away for a 69-58 win. Kemba Walker picked up right where he left off in New York. Playing all but six minutes so far, Walker has led his team in scoring in both Tourney games, shot 20-for-20 from the free throw line, and posted 17 assists against just four turnovers.

Rise and fire. Kemba (probably) drains a jumper. (Credit: Kevin Scheller/The Daily Campus)

Why you should have seen it coming: You’re familiar with this Kemba guy, right? OK, I thought so, but if you’ve been watching UConn lately you know that Walker’s young supporting cast has been playing well also. With all the big wins the Huskies scored this season—five victories over teams given 4 seeds or better—an appearance in the Sweet 16 is no surprise.

Why they may not go much further: This team has to run out of gas at some point…maybe. Even if fatigue doesn’t set in, inexperience might. UConn starts three freshmen and a sophomore, and has two other underclassmen play prominent roles off the bench. No one is playing better than Connecticut right now, but I still think San Diego State is a better team, as is Duke, should the regional finals be a rematch of the 1999 title game.

Vegas anecdote: Unfortunately for me, the UConn-Cincinnati game was the last game on Saturday and I didn’t have much rooting interest since I had chosen Missouri in my bracket. But that’s what Vegas is for, so I bet on UConn for the second half and sweated it out as they covered the line.

Iona Gaels Basketball 2011 Season Review

After Iona started the season at a tournament in Cleveland and lost all three games, the Gaels returned home to face Richmond, an NCAA Tournament team the previous year that had started 2-0 and was expected to compete for an Atlantic 10 title (it finished third but won the conference tournament).

“My concern was that if we came in here and laid an egg, I could lose them this early in the year,” Iona head coach Tim Cluess would say after the game, referring to his players. “They’d say, ‘We worked really hard, coach, and we still didn’t win.’”

Instead of losing the game and potentially their confidence, the Gaels picked up a quality nonconference win, overcoming a six-point deficit with less than a minute remaining and eventually winning in double-overtime. They used the momentum to rattle off seven straight victories and embark on a run that took them all the way to the MAAC championship game.

In the title game, Iona ran into St. Peter’s, a team committed to a defensive philosophy that was able to hold the Gaels to their lowest output of the season in a 62-57 victory.

But the ride to the finals in Bridgeport was an impressive one. Iona played a competitive game with Syracuse, losing by just six. When the Gaels beat Niagara on Jan. 21, they improved to 7-1 in the MAAC.

Iona then hit its only rough patch of the conference season, dropping four in a row—by margins of two, two, three (in OT), and four. The Gaels picked it up from there, posting another seven-game win streak to end the regular season, with most of the games decided by hefty margins. The final game of the regular season was a victory over No. 1 seed Fairfield, which cemented Iona as the hottest team in the MAAC heading into the conference tournament.

And just in case there were any doubts, Iona eliminated three-time defending champ Siena in the quarterfinals, 94-64. In the semis, the Gaels looked like a well-oiled offensive machine once again, beating Rider 83-59, before stalling against St. Peter’s.

The 22 wins are the most for the program since 2006, when it won 23 games, and Iona has a chance to add to that total in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT). The Gaels play tomorrow night at Valparaiso. Future matchups are based on seeding, so Iona’s potential next opponent is unknown.

Scott Machado, left, and Mike Glover, return next season. (Credit: Warren Rosenberg/ICGaels.com)

Looking ahead to next year, Iona loses just two seniors, Rashon Dwight and Alejo Rodriguez, though both were starters. Dwight, who averaged 8.5 points per game and led the team in steals, came on strong in the second half of the season. Rodriguez’s production was limited as he recovered from two offseason hip surgeries, but he was the second leading rebounder. The effort was there, but as Cluess pointed out after the title game, Rodriguez just didn’t seem to have the legs necessary to play three games in as many days.

Iona returns its two best players in First Team All-MAAC performers Scott Machado and Mike Glover. Machado is tied for the second in the country in assists as we head into the various postseason tournaments, while Glover posted 18 double-doubles and will likely be the frontrunner next season for MAAC Player of the Year.

They’ll both be seniors, as will guards Jermel Jenkins and Trinity Fields and versatile swingman Randy Dezouvre, giving the Gaels a nice senior core, which is often a component of conference championship teams, especially at the mid-major level. Kyle Smyth (third leading scorer at 10.1 per game) and Chris Pelcher (a 6’10 center who developed nicely this season and will take on an even greater role with the departure of Rodriguez) will be juniors. Sharpshooter Sean Armand returns, as does Jayon James, who missed most of the season due to injury.

Despite the hurt of falling just short of an NCAA Tournament bid, it was an extremely success first season for Cluess. Consider the average margin in Iona’s 11 losses was just 4.1 points, and only once did Iona lose by double digits this season, a 10-point loss during that rocky opening weekend. In other words, the Gaels were competitive in virtually every game.

There’s no reason to think Iona won’t be near the top of the MAAC standings again next season. With more seniors, the Gaels might have the added sense of urgency that is required to navigate all the way through a conference tournament.