Villanova v Temple

Atlantic 10 conference tournament preview

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Early in the year, the Atlantic 10 was all Xavier.

With a lofty preseason ranking, an all-american anchoring a back court that could match up with anyone in the country and a pair of come-from-behind wins over Purdue and at Vanderbilt, it really shouldn’t be any wonder that the Musketeers were the talk of the conference.

But a Dec. 10th brawl with Cincinnati sparked a collapse for Xavier, one that would see them lose five of their next six games and eventually drop to 10-6 in league play, it became evident that this conference wasn’t going to be Xavier’s to lose. We probably never should have felt that way in the first place, because the A-10 has proven that, this season, they are as competitive of a league as you are going to find.

The problem?

There may actually be too much balance.

Temple is the class of the conference and St. Louis isn’t all that far behind them. There’s a noticeable gap between those two teams and the rest of the pack. But with six teams sitting within a game of third place, its quite obvious that the ‘pack’ has eaten itself alive. The A-10 is probably looking at a situation where they are going to get, depending on how the tournament plays out, three or four teams. But if La Salle and UMass, and even Duquesne and Richmond, hadn’t knocked off some of those other middle-of-the-pack teams, five and even six bids wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility.

Competitive balance makes for fun conference races. But a stockpile of good teams at the top of the league may actually lead to more of a postseason presence for teams.

The Bracket

Where: Campus sits and Atlantic City, NJ

When: March 6th-March 11th

Final: March 11th, 1 p.m. CBS

Favorite: Temple

Its hard not to love what Temple has done this season. The Owls won a competitive league outright, which is not an easy thing to do, particularly when you are playing a completely different style than you are used to. Fran Dunphy has become synonymous with tough, defensive-minded basketball in his time with the Owls, but this season they like getting up and down the floor. They win thanks to the ability of guys like Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt and Juan Fernandez to score. With Michael Eric back, the Owls now also have the size to battle bigger teams in the paint.

And if they lose?: St. Louis

Rick Majerus has done a great job with the Billikens. They finished second in the Atlantic 10 despite being just one season removed from a rape allegation that resulted in their best player getting kicked off the team for a year. This group defends well, controls the pace and shoots it from the perimeter. And if you believe Kenpom, you might want to pick St. Louis. He’s got them 12th in the country. Overall.

Other contenders?: Its impossible not to put Xavier in on this list. When you have a back court of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, a glue-guy with the talent of Dez Wells and a front line with high-major size and talent, you expect victories. We’ll see if they can get back into that rhythm.

Sleeper: St. Joseph’s

I really like this group now and I’ve really liked them all season long. They have a terrific back court and an athletic front line that is capable of putting on a show for the folks at Sportscenter. The Hawks won five of six games in February to get themselves back into the bubble discussion, but stumbled down the stretch, losing two of their last three games.

Deeper sleepers: St. Bonaventure is playing well and has the league’s Player of the Year, Andrew Nicholson, anchoring the paint. La Salle and UMass have both won enough games this season to garner a mention here as well.

Studs:

Carl Jones and Langston Galloway, St. Joe’s: This back court duo averages 32.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 5.5 apg.

Chris Gaston, Forhdam: He may be the most productive player on the country, but he also plays for Fordham. Who is going to recognize him from there?

Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt, Fairfield: These two combine to average 34.9 ppg, 6.8 apg and 7.4 rpg.

Kevin Dillard, Dayton: The A-10 is loaded when it comes to back court players, but Dillard has stood out because he has been the catalyst and one of the lone bright spots for a confounding Flyer team.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.