March College Basketball

March is here. That most wondrous, glorious time in which both the NCAA Tournament and baseball’s Opening Day both happen. This post I’m focusing on the former. It’s been a mixed bag of a season for our area teams. Let’s take a look at where they stand, relative to the tournament.

All records are as of March 4th, 2019

 

The Shoe-ins

 

Kentucky Wildcats (24-5) – John Calipari has these Cats currently projected to be a 2 seed in the dance. Considering everyone outside the bluegrass basically wrote them off after they began the season getting smashed by Duke, Kentucky just proves that losses in November mean very little in March. Keldon Johnson figures to be the highest draft pick from this squad, but this may be one of the most cohesive teams Coach Cal has ever put together. They defend like nobody’s business. KenPom has them rated top-10 (#9) in adjusted defense. They’ve also got Tyler Herro, whose last name says it all. They could very well be a 1 seed with a SEC Tournament victory.

 

Cincinnati Bearcats (25-4) – Yeah, that record is the exact same as Kentucky. Sure, they’ve had different roads to get to where they are, but considering this is technically a rebuilding year, that is amazing. They lost the best player the program has seen since Kenyon Martin, in Gary Clark, another NBA-caliber player in Jacob Evans, and a strong post presence in Kyle Washington. They’ve followed that up by producing the favorite to win conference player of the year, in Jaron Cumberland, ad sticking to the top of the conference standings. Mick Cronin has truly done a great job with his team slotted in as a 7 seed with a possibility, if they win the American Athletic Conference Tournament, of a 6 seed. Like the Wildcats, the Bearcats are a well-knit unit of a team. Mick has these guys rolling like a family who is fighting for each other. They could be a sneaky pick to make it out of the first weekend in the tournament, though I do not expect them to in order for me to be happy with their season.

 

The Bubblers

 

Dayton Flyers (19-10) – The Flyers have had an up-and-down year and may need to just flat out win their conference tourney to make the big dance. Their recent OT loss to Rhode Island at UD Arena has emphasized their desperation. They came really close to signature, non-conference wins in the early season, but couldn’t finish them off. They would have been in a better position had they beaten Virginia Commonwealth once. The NET rankings, the new standard for the tournament, currently has them at 74. Making the Atlantic 10 Tournament finals could sneak them in, but Anthony Grant’s side may have their backs against the wall for an at-large bid.

 

Xavier Musketeers (16-13) – It is an absolute shock that they are in this conversation, but here we are. A few weeks ago they were left for dead. A truly rough January, where they won just two games in seven, had them in dead last for the Big East. Travis Steele was being seen as a bust…in his first year, but whatevs…and then things change. Naji Marshall morphs into the player he was expected to be, coming into the year, and has taken over the Trevon Blueitt role of putting the team on his back when they are in need of a basket. After a loss to DePaul on February 9th, the Musketeers got to work. They beat Creighton in OT, smashed Providence on the road, and then loudly proclaimed their comeback by soundly beating Villanova by a dozen. Now it feels like, if they can finish strong against Butler and St. Johns, followed by a deep Big East tournament run, they could steal an at-large bid. Like Dayton, they may have their backs to the wall and need a Big East Conference tournament title to get in. Unlike Dayton, three weeks ago, this seemed as farfetched as the existence of aliens. Yet, here we are.

 

You must be a Conference Tournament Title Winner to ride the ride

 

Northern Kentucky Norse (23-8) – The Norse hit a speed bump on February 23 when Cleveland State, on NKU’s senior night, left Highland Heights with a win. The second-to-the-bottom Cleveland State Vikings snapped the Norse’s 20-game home winning streak and threw water on any argument they had at an at-large bid, should they not win the Horizon League Tournament. Now Drew McDonald is a special player and broke the school record for most points, but he will need to lead the Norse to a tourney title in order to dance.

 

Wright State Raiders (19-12) – Like the Norse, they split the regular season championship for the Horizon League. Unlike NKU, Wright State never had a whisper of an at-large bid. Cleveland State help them split the regular season with the rival Norse, but now the Raiders need to win the Horizon League tournament to make it in. Led by Sophomore Loudon Love (15 ppg), Wright State’s run to a conference title starts tomorrow night at the Nutter Center against IUPUI.

 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, let’s enjoy our area teams finishing up their respective seasons!

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Ford Era, Bears off to Roaring Start

So, like I mentioned in my preview of this season, I cover Cincinnati sports, but I really like following this up-and-coming coach out in Missouri. The Missouri State Bears (1-0) got their first victory of the Dana Ford era and it was a thorough dismantling of Oral Roberts (0-1) by a score of 84-50. Get ready for the Bears, if Tuesday is any indication, this is going to be a good year in Springfield.

Jarred Dixon led the charge for the Bears with a career-high 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting. The senior displayed his catch-and-shoot ability, but also showed his talent of creating shots, giving MSU as dynamic scorer to lean on in any situation. He led four Bears who scored at least 11. Ryan Kreklow put up 13 points, off the bench, Keandre Cook added 12, and Kabir Mohammed pitched in 11.

The Bears played Dana-ball, beating the Golden Eagles on the boards and causing as many turnovers as MSU had assists (21). Senior forward Obediah Church stuffed the stat sheet with six points, seven rebounds, four blocks, and three assists. Coach Ford also has his point guard in Josh Webster. The senior finished the game with nine assists, seven of which came in the first half. Webster will be one to watch, heading into the weekend, though, as he looked to have injured his left ankle, early in the second half. He did return and finish the game, though, so it may be minor.

ORU put up a fight, but it didn’t last much past the halfway point of the first half. Five and a half minutes into the opening frame, the Bears took the lead, for good, at 15-14.

Coach Ford and the Bears will turn their focus to Robert Morris (Friday) and Stetson (Sunday), this weekend.

Other Area teams:

Kentucky suffered its worst loss of the John Calipari era, Tuesday, as Duke thrashed em 118-84. UK will need to get it’s defense in shape, though these early November games tend to mean very little, come March. This will be plenty of fuel to the practice fires that Calipari will be stoking all year. I can still see that game being a championship preview.

Xavier took care of business with IUPUI, winning 82-69. Were it not for a rash of turnovers by the Jaguars, late, this may have been a lot closer. Xavier struggled to pull away for much of the game. They’re still building an identity under Travis Steele, but it’s nice to see a one in the win column, rather than the loss column.

NKU beat Wilmington College. Nothing really to see here.

Who’s Next:

At 6 pm, The Bearcats re-open Fifth-Third Arena tonight with the Buckeyes. I’m looking forward to sitting down with a few cold ones and taking this one in.

Dayton also hosts North Florida and Wright State welcomes Western Carolina to town. Both of those games tip at 7 pm.

College Basketball, A Pair of Blue Grass Previews

It’s that wonderful time of year when college basketball begins. I’ve taken a look at the area teams (and one not in the area) and will give you what you should watch for this year with each one. In this post I will focus on two team from a state I once called home, the Blue Grass state. That’s the American dream, right? Someone who tells you what to think about?

Northern Kentucky Norse (22-10, 15-3 Horizon), Head Coach – John Brannen

Last season’s landlords for the Bearcats, the Norse will look to build on a great 2017-18 season. They did lose their second, third, and fourth leading scorers, but they return their team MVP, Drew McDonald. He led the Norse in scoring (17 ppg) and rebounding (9.6 rpg) and was the second leading passer with 2.3 assists per game. He’s back to lead a young Norse team. He, and graduate transfer Zaynah Robinson (Norfolk State), are the only two slated to leave the Norse after this season. This could be a set-the-table season for next year, or they could continue their success.

One interesting player who will fly under the radar will be Jalen Tate. He led the Norse defense last year, averaging over a steal per game and just under a block per game, and he’s a guard. By the way, NKU were the best defensive team in the Horizon League, last season.

Predicting the team MVP – Drew McDonald. Easiest pick of all these teams. The guy pretty much averaged a double-double at 6’ 8”, 250 lbs.

Best game to watch – Either game, be it January 11th at NKU, or February 15th in Dayton, against Wright State. NKU won the Horizon League regular season but lost both times to Wright State. This has become a nice rivalry game, which is why the first game in Highland Heights is on ESPN 2 and the second game, in Dayton, is on ESPN U.

Predicting what we will be looking back on, next April – The Norse will celebrate the contributions that McDonald gave to them in his four-year career and they will do better than one-and-done in the Horizon League tournament. That being said, not sure this is a tournament team, but we’ll see.


Kentucky Wildcats (26-11, 10-8 SEC), Head Coach – John Calipari

Cal and the Cats return their greatest percentage of scoring from last year’s team (>30%) since their almost-undefeated 2014-15 season. They also add a very Calipari-like recruiting class and Reid Travis, a graduate transfer from Stanford. Last year’s team underperformed, and Cal will use that as fuel to galvanize a squad that returns its frontcourt and point guard. As opposed to most Calipari-era seasons, this Cats team is well rounded and balanced. They lack the absolute stud (may catch some flak on that) but they can run ten-deep, if they want, and few schools can say that.

Predicting the team MVP – Keldon Johnson. He should be a top-10 pick in the 2019 NBA draft and he should be the go-to guy in the Cats offense, come March. It may be a slow development as he gets used to his role, and if that role stays the same all year. Quade Green and Reid Travis may be pretty good, too.

Best game to watch – I wanted to be different and not pick this, but its tonight’s game against Duke at the Champions Classic. A close second will be either game against Tennessee as the Vols are going to be really good, too.

Predicting what we will be looking back on, next April – We’ll be talking about how everyone played the entire year, thousands upon thousands of games, and the national championship was just a rematch of the game played on the first day of the season. Kentucky will play Duke for the National Championship (I hope they don’t get put on the same side of the bracket), but I will not pick the winner until March.

Check out the other previews of area college basketball:

The Gem City Previews

Miami (OH) and Missouri State Previews

The Queen City Previews

Follow @jefffcarr and @sportsinnati on Twitter

Bracket Monday

The best Monday of the year happened yesterday. Now, some may disagree, especially with the time change and losing an hour just one day before, but Bracket Monday is the only, non-holiday, Monday of the year.

“That’s not what it’s called,” says some no-name.

“Well, it is now,” says I.

Bracket Monday is a day that, no matter what I am supposed to be doing, I am totally focused on the bracket. Who will make the Final Four? Which team is this year’s Cinderella? Will a 16-seed finally defeat a 1-seed? These are questions that my feeble, fandom-soaked, mind is only partially successful at deciphering. Regardless, I thought it worth sharing, so here we go.

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Lets start with the group of death, the South Region. I am super biased here…and that doesn’t really stay within their region, but I’ll get to that later. I like my Bearcats! Frankly, I feel like they are the better team in all their matchups, except for the Elite Eight when they find a way to beat Virginia, but there is more there than just the seeds. I, admittedly, do not know much about Nevada, but I can see Mo Bamba and Texas making it to round two. The Bearcats will be able to neutralize Bamba, forcing the rest of the team to step up, something they aren’t that adept at doing. Then, in the Sweet 16, UC will be able to slow Tennessee down to a crawl and make enough shots to get to, what I regard, as a dream matchup in this Tournament. I am so excited at the prospect of a UVA vs UC game in which the winner may score just 40 points, so I will totally pick it…because I really want it to happen.

Good spot to put a disclaimer, I like to fall back on picking matchups I want to see.

Other than the Longhorns, I feel good about the other two upsets I picked. Seth Davis, from the Athletic, is all over Buffalo over Arizona…but he still picked Arizona to win. I am taking it one step further and taking the Bulls. The other upset, Loyola-Chicago over Miami (Fla.), is more about what a story I could see it being. LC hasn’t been to the Dance in a long time, so I don’t see them bowing out to get some punch before the music kicks in. For what it’s worth, I am a fan of Kentucky…but this year has been so un-Calipari that I could almost see them losing in the first round to Davidson. I don’t think it enough to pick it, though, as you can see in the image above.

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Now on to the West. Again, my bias is showing. Putting X through to the Final Four is pretty bold, according to most pundits, but they have been really good all year. Take away their mandatory pair of games against Villanova, and they’re practically flawless. I think they can overcome the popular pick out the West, Gonzaga, in the Sweet 16 and overtake Michigan to get to San Antonio.

Only two upsets made it in my bracket for this region. Providence has a great coat and a good resume this year, which is why I think they take their 10-7 matchup and get out of round one. San Diego State is a literal dart throw…though I can see Houston being dejected after falling just short in the American Conference Championship game to Cincinnati. Michigan over UNC will be a trendy pick, and I’m in. UNC is a better version of Kentucky…which still means they’re shaky. Hot take here, but I think the Tar Heels are the weakest 2-seed.

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Next is the East Region where I have succumbed to peer pressure. Everyone is picking Villanova…everyone. I wanted to take Purdue, but I thought about it and they don’t have the stuff to stop Nova’s crazy shooters. Texas Tech kind of sparked my interest, but they are without a key player and you need all hands on deck to beat the Wildcats. Jay Wright has the best scoring team in this tournament and I do not see anyone in this region slowing them down.

Speaking of Texas Tech, I have St. Bonaventure beating them in the second round. I just really like the Bonnies. I think they have that fire of having just barely made it in to the tournament, and their guards are pretty solid, so I can see them being a nice Sweet 16 pick. Don’t think the Bonnies make it out of the first round, you say? Meh, I say you’re wrong. They’ll beat the Ball-less UCLA and then upset the boring Gators. On a Side note, I wanted to pick Wichita State over Villanova. I really enjoy watching Landry Shamet and Shaq Morris play basketball, but they just don’t have enough to push the Shockers to the Elite Eight.

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That brings us to the Midwest and final region on the bracket. I am going to take some heat for this call, but. I got New Mexico State being this year’s Cinderella…until they meet up with Tom Izzo and Michigan State. Sparty is on a scorched earth campaign as they have been hounded about Larry Nasser and sex abuse within the athletic department for most of the season. Probably the most exciting player in college basketball, not named Trae, Miles Bridges will lead his teammates to the Final Four. Meanwhile, Kansas will play victim to another Cinderella story as Mew Mexico State will bounce them in the Sweet 16. This is where I balance my college basketball fan-know-how with total nonsense because I just want this to happen. Tell me anything about New Mexico State. I do apologize if, for some reason, this is being read by someone who went there, or is there, but here in Ohio, knowledge of New Mexico State is as follows: they are in the tournament and are a 12-seed. That’s pretty much it. Nonetheless, I got em being awesome this year.

So that leaves us with the Final Four and Champion. If you know me, you’re rolling your eyes.

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“Cincinnati and Xavier are NOT meeting in the Final Four, Frederick!” Shut your pie-hole. Again, this is where the wishful-thinking, fan-minded side in me comes out, but Southwest Ohio would literally collapse in on itself from sheer excitement if this were to happen…so bring it on. Xavier and the Bearcats to see who faces Villanova, and oh, wait, it’s UC! The Bearcats make their first Championship game since, like, the 50’s, or something, and then shock everyone and win the whole dang thing.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen on the readership. Go ahead and disagree with me…I know you will.

Mick, the Coach UC Doesn’t Deserve

Mick Cronin is a good coach.

I am not sure why he receives the flak he gets, but Mick is legit. I have been a Cincinnati Bearcats fan all my life, or at least since I could understand sports, and the turnaround that Mick wrought at UC is something you would figure precludes him from most sorts of criticism…but it seems to have galvanized his haters, and boy, they had a field day on Monday.

In case you missed it, the Bearcats played their Senior Day game against Tulsa and won. Some may say the margin was concerning, as they beat the unranked, conference foe by only eight points, with a lackluster defense to blame. “Mick Ball,” if you will, is predicated on defense and rebounding, so I understood the question that the reported posed to him after the game. Mick’s answer, though, was legendary.

“I will give you a stat. Kentucky, Indiana, and Louisville have combined to lose 32 games this season. We have lost four. Tell me how long it has taken this program to lose 32 games? If you look around, people ought to be real happy at Cincinnati with the way the basketball program at Cincinnati is being run. Next question.”

Firstly, there are some folks erroneously perceiving this as some sort of shot at Kentucky (Indiana and Louisville fans haven’t really weighed in). That’s false. Mick was using them to illustrate how good a year UC is having. Look, Mick doesn’t live with his head in the sand. He understands where UC falls in relation to the other programs in this region. All three of them have won championships since UC was even in the Final Four last. He wasn’t putting them down, he was comparing their down years to UC’s strong year. When was the last time UC was consistently ranked in the top ten? That’s what Mick is getting at.

Secondly, without actually coming out and saying it, Mick is asking what more do you want? The Bearcats are four games away from being undefeated this year. Yeah, yeah, I hear you, way in the back, asking about strength of schedule and blahdy blah blah. Ask Villanova about their wins against ranked opponents…and their losses to unranked ones. Talk to Duke about their unblemished record. And don’t even get me started on Kentucky. Maybe the UK fans are so butt hurt about Mick uttering their school in a sentence because they understand it’s been a rough season? Which, by the way, the Cats have looked real good here lately, but I digress. But the point is, the Bearcats play the schedule that is made. There are cupcakes, sure, but the majority of NCAA Division 1 teams are able to beat the majority of NCAA Division 1 teams. UC IS HAVING A GOOD SEASON, DARN IT!

The thing this boils down to is this, the Bearcats are poised to win their first AAC regular season title since their inaugural season in the conference and they look like a favorite to win the conference tournament. They even look like a good bet to make it to the second…maybe even third…weekend in the NCAA tournament. Mick has done a heck of a job putting together a team that, despite its struggles of late, plays his style of basketball really well. He doesn’t…nay can’t…recruit one-and-done type guys and still has a team to be reckoned with year-in and year-out.

Mick Cronin is a good coach.

Image credit – Associated Press