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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College Basketball: The Opening of New Fifth-Third Arena

Wednesday night was awesome. The Cincinnati Bearcats reopened a pristine, beautiful arena that will be a major home field advantage, moving forward, and we witnessed the beginning of an intriguing career in Logan Johnson.

Sure, the Bearcats lost the game, but I’m not super worried about that. This was an emotional game. The re-opening of home. The start of the post-Gary Clark, post-Jacob Evans, post-Kyle Washington era. The first time Ohio State has played in Cincinnati since before the Great Depression (1920). All of those are narratives, sure, and it’s up to the players to tune that out, but c’mon. You’d have to be braindead to ignore all that. So, yeah, this was always going to be a tumultuous matchup.

I get it, they shot poorly. Scored just 22 points in the first 25 minutes of the game, had sub-20% shooting percentage, all that. That is the sort of thing that isn’t going to linger. Now, are they going to shoot 60% in a game? Probably not. But they wont consistently shoot as bad as they did in the opener.

Part of the problem in the first half was Jaron Cumberland, one of the expected leaders of this team, did not score. Can Broom made like one shot. Tre Scott had zero dunks. If you would have told me that before the game, I’d have said they’d lose by 30. But they didn’t. The defense is just as Mick as it’s always been under Cronin. They kept the lane clean, for the most part, and were beaten by some good shots from the Buckeyes. There were no easy points given up, though. 

Oh, and yeah it took me a bit to get to a point in the opening graph, but welcome to Cincinnati, Logan Johnson. This kid is going to be fun to watch. Yeah, I know you just looked up his stat line and went cross-eyed, because there wasn’t much to talk about. So why am I happy? His intensity. Kid was manning up with whoever was wearing red. He disrupted passes, he got the crowd into the game when the Bearcats trailed by 14. It was his first game. Sign me up for a number zero jersey.

But the biggest point of the night was Fifth-Third. The place is absolutely fantastic. I got to check it out before last Saturday’s football game, and it is completely and utterly different from the way it was just two years ago. You would not know you were in the same building. As the team grows, this place will be rocking and will be as good, or better, that SMU or Houston for toughest place in The American to play.

Bearcats basketball is back, baby.

Other goings on:

Dayton and Wright State both won their openers. Dayton played a close game with North Florida, and won 78-70. Wright State, on the other hand, dispatched Western Carolina 96-73. The Raiders have a legitimate argument for being the best team in Southwest Ohio.

Thursday night is a quiet one, for area college basketball. Friday sees Kentucky, Northern Kentucky, and Missouri State back in action.

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: Previewing the Gem City

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. This post highlights the best the Gem City has to offer. That’s the American dream, right? Someone who tells you what to think about?

Dayton Flyers (14-17, 8-10 Atlantic 10), Head Coach – Anthony Grant

The Flyers should have some high expectations in the second year of Grant. Of their top five performers from last season, they lost one. Just one. Josh Cunningham is back. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Cunningham will lead a group of experience players who went through the struggle of last season. Battle-tested (to get dramatic), these Flyers should be a lot more successful, this season. The test will be health. They aren’t very deep, beyond their top four. That’s not to say a newcomer cant step up, and Dayton does have a redshirt junior in Ryan Mikesell who missed all of last year due to an injury, so that will be the intrigue in this year’s team.

Predicting the team MVP – Cunningham. He’s one of just two seniors on the team and supremely talented. He’s Grant’s go-to guy in all situations.

Best game to watch – Dayton will go down to the Bahamas and play a school that would normally be a two-hour drive away in Butler. Always love a regional battle.

Predicting what we will be looking back on, next April – The Flyers will come close to sending Cunningham off in style, but they are still a year away from being a real monster in the A-10. A top-3 finish is not out of reach, though.


Wright State Raiders (25-10, 14-4 Horizon), Head Coach – Scott Nagy

Gone is the leading scorer, Grant Benzinger, but pretty much everyone else is back. Loudon Love, Mark Hughes, and Parker Ernsthausen were three of the four Raiders to start 33, or more, games (Benzinger was the fourth). Love was the second best scorer (12 ppg) and best rebounder (nine rpg) while Hughes led the team in assists with 105. The Raiders also return Cole Gentry and Jaylon Hall, two players who saw more than 23 minutes a game. The Horizon League Tournament Champion, Wright State faced a juggernaut in the tournament when Tennessee steamrolled to a 73-47 victory. That will be a chip on the shoulders of all these returning players and will push them to a very good 2018-19 campaign.

Predicting the team MVP – Love is the answer. He averaged just shy of a double-double, last season, and may just do that this season. A dark horse is Ernsthausen, if for no other reason than he’s got an awesome name.

Best game to watch – You’ll see this under Northern Kentucky, but both of those games are going to be off the chain and really entertaining basketball.

Predicting what we will be looking back on, next April – The Raiders will not only build on the success of last year, but they will win the Horizon regular season, the Horizon Tournament, and will pull off a first round win in the tournament. Mark it down, @ me, do whatever you have to do, it’s happening.

Check out more area college basketball previews from Sportsinnati:

The Blue Grass Previews

Miami (OH) and Missouri State Previews

The Queen City Previews

Follow @jefffcarr and @sportsinnati on Twitter