Conference Catch-ups: Atlantic-10 Battle Royale

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Atlantic-10 Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Virginia Commonwealth
The Ram’s blend of experience, leadership, 3-point firepower and HAVOC defense is what sets them apart from the rest of the A-10.

Both Troy Daniels and Darius Theus were members of the 2010 Rams squad that lost to Butler at the Final-4 and are now the heart and soul of the Ram’s team. Juniors Juvonte Reddic, Rob Brandenburg and D.J. Haley have all been vital contributors during their time in Richmond. It seems like every season Shaka Smart loses 2-3 talented experienced seniors, only to see a new crop of leaders emerge from the underclassmen ranks. It has happened nearly every season since he took over in 2009. Sophomore Treveon Graham leads the team in scoring with 14.8-ppg and sophomore Briante Weber is the nation’s leader in steal percentage (8.67%).

The Ram’s patented “HAVOC” defense continues to give people fits and their offensive firepower goes unrivaled in the A-10. There are a handful of teams that could win the Atlantic-10, but VCU looks like the only team right now that should.
 
 
Contenders: The top of the Atlantic-10 is as deep as any conference in the country, even the Big-Ten. No team has been through as much as the Saint Louis Billikens have this season. They got a new coach, lost their best player to injury, and mourned the passing of Rick Majerus. But after losing three of their first six games, the Billikens have rattled off seven in a row, including a 14-point win over No. 20 New Mexico. Oh, and they’ve got their star player, Kwamain Mitchell, back from injury.

But we shouldn’t forget about Butler or Temple. In fact, the top four teams in the A-10 are all capable of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Rotnei Clarke has added the scoring threat the Butler Bulldogs desperately needed, and it showed in high-profile wins over Marquette, North Carolina and Indiana. The Bulldog’s frontcourt of Khyle Marshall and Andrew Smith has been as good as advertised.

Then there is Temple. The Owls are just a Canisius loss away from being talked about among the nation’s elite. Their only other losses were to No. 1 Duke and No.6 Temple. Plus they dominated No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden. They also have the conference’s best player in Khalif Wyatt.
 
 
Biggest Surprise: Charlotte
This isn’t really a surprise, since Charlotte ranks 292nd in strength of schedule and lost their only two non-conference games against BCS-conference teams. But at 12-2 heading in to A-10 play, the 49ers should be commended for winning all the games they should win and not slipping up against inferior competition. This team has enough experience and youthful talent to cause a scare in the A-10. Freshman forward Willie Clayton has the second best offensive rebounding percentage in the country (19.4%) and sophomore Pierra Henry ranks 9th nationally in steal percentage (5.82%). They deserve the recognition now because in a month they will start one of the most hellacious 6-game stretches of any team in any conference: at Temple, VCU, at Butler, at Saint Louis, Temple, and Dayton.
 
 
Biggest Disappointment: Saint Joseph’s
Considering the Hawks were preseason favorites to win the A-10, sitting at 8-4 with ugly losses to Creighton, Florida State, Villanova and Fairfield is troubling. What’s also troubling is the manner in which they lost. They were outclasses by Creighton on the road, lost their composure against Villanova and came up flat against a bad Florida State team and Fairfield. The Hawks have one of the most talented rosters in the A-10, and aside from an overtime win against Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden, they have not won any signature games.
 
 
Player of the Year: Khalif Wyatt, Temple
The senior guard leads the team in scoring with 16.1-ppg and was the driving force in Temple’s huge win against Syracuse. He scored 33 points on 8-for-17 from the field and a perfect 15-for-15 from the free throw in the Owls’ 83-79 win at Madison Square Garden. Aside from his six point performance against Duke, Wyatt is usually the best player on the court, which should bode well for the Owls as they head in to A-10 play.
 
 
Best Freshman: Semaj Christon, Xavier
The freshman guard has been the lone bright spot for the Musketeers, who have lost four in a row and sit at 7-6 with losses to Wofford and Pacific. Christon is a play-making guard who can score from almost anywhere and have stepped up in big spots, like on the road at Purdue, where he scored 25 points on 8-for-12 from the field. Unfortunately, he is being asked to do too much for a freshman, and is not getting the support from the front court that the team needs.
 
 
Three Predictions:

  • The A-10 Tournament in Brooklyn will be the best Championship Week Tournament. The A-10 is leaving Atlantic City in favor of the fresh digs at the Barclays Center in Brookyln. This conference is going to have multiple NCAA Tournament bids hanging in the balance come Championship Week, and with the Big East Tournament taking place on the other side of the bridge, there is going to be a lot of buzz surrounding Brooklyn.
  • An Atlantic-10 team will make the Final-4. This is one of the deepest conferences in the country. If VCU can escape league play with only minor scrapes and bruises, there is no reason to believe they can’t win six games in-a-row at a neutral site. Temple and St. Joseph’s have the talent to compete with any team in the country and Butler is still Butler, only now they Rotnei Clarke.
  • Xavier will not win the A-10. I know, I know. Not that bold of a prediction. But the Musketeers have dominated the conference for what seems like the last two decades. However with the addition of Butler and VCU, along with the team’s lack of depth and production in the frontcourt, the Musketeers will be on the outside looking in. Semaj Christon has been great, but the X-Men could really used a boost in play from their experienced leaders like Jeff Robinson and Brad Redford, but they aren’t getting it.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Virginia Commonwealth*
2. Temple*
3. Butler*
4. Saint Louis*
5. Saint Joseph’s
6. Dayton
7. Xavier
8. UMass
9. Richmond
10. Charlotte
11. LaSalle
12. Duquesne
13. St. Bonaventure
14. Rhode Island
15. George Washington
16. Fordham

You can find Troy on Twitter at @TroyMachir

Wednesday’s Three Things To Know: No. 8 Texas Tech, No. 19 Seton Hall get dropped on the road

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The nights where there aren’t any marquee games are always the nights where college basketball goes absolutely batty.

Wednesday night was no different.

Here are the three things you need to know.

1. TEXAS TECH BLEW THE ADVANTAGE THEY HAD IN THE BIG 12 RACE

It’s a talking point that never really caught on, but prior to Wednesday night’s trip to Austin, No. 8 Texas Tech had the inside lane in the race for the Big 12 regular season title.

There is a clear-cut top four in the conference: Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma and the Red Raiders. The way to win the league was simple: Beat the teams outside of the top four and protect your home court against the other three contenders. Entering Wednesday, Texas Tech and Kansas were sitting one game ahead of West Virginia, who had lost at home to Kansas, and Oklahoma, had lost on the road to Kansas State. Texas Tech already had a leg up on the Jayhawks as well, as they won in Phog Allen Fieldhouse earlier this year.

I would hesitate to call anyone a favorite in the Big 12 that isn’t named Kansas, but the Red Raiders had certainly put themselves in a position where they had the easiest path.

And then the Texas game happened.

Mo Bamba went for 15 points, 11 boards and five blocks and Kerwin Roach poured in 20 in a return to the lineup as Texas beat No. 8 Texas Tech, 67-58. We knew losses were likely coming for the Red Raiders – no one is going to make it through this league without taking some lumps – but it has to be frustrating that those losses came when the program had a chance to keep pace with Kansas.

Credit to Texas. Their defense played as well as it has in weeks, they showed some toughness to get the win against a physical Tech team and they landed a résumé win that should age well.

Texas Tech also did a really cool thing for Andrew Jones prior to the game.

2. SETON HALL GOT BLOWN OUT ON THE ROAD AND DESI RODRIGUEZ GOT BENCHED

Twice in the last eight days, No. 19 Seton Hall has lost by at least 17 points on the road after they fell, 80-63, at Creighton on Wednesday night.

Creighton is a good team. They were playing at home in an arena that routinely puts 17,000 butts in seats. When they get it going they are tough to beat, so there really isn’t all that much to be concerned about here in a vacuum.

But we’re not in a vacuum.

Creighton lost by 20 points at Marquette last Tuesday. Marquette is not as good as Creighton and they do not play in as tough of an atmosphere as there is in Omaha.

What’s worse, however, is that Desi Rodriguez – the guy that has probably been Seton Hall’s Player of the Year – played just six minutes. Here is Kevin Willard’s explanation:

“He had that look in his face where he just didn’t want to be out there. When he gets that way, you just got to let him regroup and refocus. And it just never happened.”

That’s probably a cover for something else, but the concern for Seton Hall fans was that Rodriguez was hurt.

Getting benched isn’t ideal. But it’s better than getting hurt.

3. ALABAMA ENDED NO. 17 AUBURN’S 14-GAME WINNING STREAK

But what is more impressive is that they did it without Collin Sexton, who was sitting out with an injury.

That is a massive win for the Crimson Tide’s NCAA tournament hopes, which our Scott Phillips detailed here.

No. 24 TCU snaps 3-game skid with 96-73 over Iowa State

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Vladimir Brodziansky had 26 points and No. 24 TCU snapped a three-game losing streak with a 96-73 win over Iowa State on Wednesday night, when the Horned Frogs played for the first time without injured starting point guard Jaylen Fisher.

Alex Robinson, who started at point guard, scored eight points and had a school-record 17 assists for the Horned Frogs (14-4, 2-4 Big 12), who never trailed and shot 60 percent from the field. He had only one turnover in 38 minutes.

Brodziansky shot 11 of 13 for his third 20-point game in five games. JD Miller added 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting with five 3-pointers. Kouat Noi scored 16 points and Kenrich Williams had his eighth double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

Donovan Jackson had 19 points for Iowa State (10-6, 1-5). Cameron Lard and Lindell Wigginton each had 16.

Fisher was scheduled to have surgery Thursday, two days after injuring his right knee during practice. The sophomore guard missed the team’s trip to Australia in August after tearing meniscus in his left knee during practice then, but was back for the start of the season after surgery.

Robinson’s 12th assist, surpassing his previous career high of 11, was on pass to Brodziansky for a slam dunk that made it 70-53 with 11:36 left before an Iowa State timeout. That was among many plays applauded by Fisher, who sat in a chair near the TCU bench.

TCU jumped out to a 14-4 lead in the game’s first 5 minutes, and led by as many as 17 in the first half.

BIG PICTURE

Iowa St.: Even while they shot 51 percent from the field (30 of 59), the Cyclones couldn’t gain any momentum coming off their first Big 12 victory Saturday against Baylor. Wigginton, the freshman who was the Big 12 newcomer of the week after games with 30 and 27 points last week, had only two points at halftime after he got two fouls in the first 9 minutes.

TCU: After so many close games, including consecutive overtime losses on the road last week, the Frogs finally had a game in which they didn’t have to press in the closing minutes. Their four Big 12 losses are by a combined 11 points, and their only previous conference win was by three points in overtime.

UP NEXT

Iowa St.: Another ranked opponent for the Cyclones, who host No. 8 Texas Tech on Saturday.

TCU: The Horned Frogs play three of their next four games on the road. They are at Kansas State (13-5, 3-3) on Saturday.

No. 14 Arizona overcomes slow start, runs past Cal 79-58

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BERKELEY, Calif. — Deandre Ayton had 20 points and 11 rebounds, and No. 14 Arizona overcame a slow, sloppy start to beat California 79-58 on Wednesday night.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright scored 14 points with three 3-pointers during a decisive stretch spanning halftime as the Wildcats won their third straight since losing at Colorado on Jan. 6.

Dylan Smith made all four of his 3s and added 14 points and Allonzo Trier scored 15 as Arizona (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) played without sophomore guard Rawle Alkins, held out as a precaution with what the school said was mild right foot soreness.

Justice Sueing scored 19 points to lead Cal (7-12, 1-5) but missed all six of his 3-point attempts for the cold-shooting Golden Bears, held to 35.3 percent and outrebounded 36-22. Don Coleman had 11 points but shot just 3 of 13.

Ayton made 9 of 11 shots and Arizona shot 62 percent, going 11 for 19 from deep.

Arizona connected on six straight 3-pointers from the 9:20 mark until 2:32 left before halftime to take control, three by Parker Jackson-Cartwright, then seven in all spanning halftime. Cal got within single digits, down by nine, for all of 17 seconds in the second half.

The Wildcats went four possessions until getting their first shot off while committing three quick turnovers and falling behind 6-0. They had turnovers on six of their initial nine possessions and 21 overall but still wound up shooting 70 percent in the opening half.

Arizona won its fourth straight in the series.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: The Pac-12’s top team from the free throw line, the Wildcats followed up a 34-of-37 showing at the line against Oregon last Saturday — the program’s first time at 90 percent or higher with at least 35 attempts since going 38 of 40 (.950) vs. Washington on Jan. 27, 2005, a span of 454 games — by shooting just 13 free throws and making six. Arizona came in shooting 85.3 percent at the line. … The Wildcats are 18-11 in Pac-12 road games played in the state of California under Sean Miller since 2009. Miller also is 12-4 vs. Cal.

Cal: Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-foot-1 center, scored 10 points to post his first game in double figures scoring since Nov. 16 against Wofford. … Cal has beaten ranked Arizona teams 11 times, including No. 1 four years ago at Haas Pavilion. While the Bears averaged 54.5 points over their recent road trip to Washington and Washington State last weekend, they hurt their chances with a 1-for-13 shooting performance from 3-point range but made 21 of 30 free throws.

UP NEXT

Arizona: At Stanford on Saturday afternoon.

Cal: Hosts Arizona State on Saturday night.

Holtmann makes Big Ten history as Ohio St. tops Northwestern

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ROSEMONT, Ill. — Chris Holtmann became the first coach in 95 years to win his first seven Big Ten games as No. 22 Ohio State defeated Northwestern 71-65 on Wednesday night.

C.J. Jackson had 12 points, eight assists and three steals, Micah Potter scored 13 points off the bench, Jae’Sean Tate added 12 and Keita Bates-Diop had 10 points and eight rebounds for the Buckeyes (16-4, 7-0), who won their sixth straight overall.

Holtmann is the third Big Ten coach to win his first seven conference games, joining Wisconsin’s Walter Meanwell (1911-12) and Iowa’s Sam Barry (1922-23). Holtmann replaced Thad Matta, the program’s all-time wins leader, this season.

Vic Law scored 14 points and Scottie Lindsey added 13 for Northwestern (11-9, 2-5) as the Wildcats suffered their second straight double-digit loss.

Picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten in a preseason media poll, the Buckeyes have been the story of the conference so far this season.

Coming off successive routs of then-No. 1 Michigan State, Maryland and Rutgers, Ohio State led Northwestern by as many as 15 in the second half before holding off a late Wildcats charge.

Northwestern got within three at 68-65 on a 3-pointer by Lindsey with 43 seconds left, but Jackson sealed the the victory from the foul line.

BIG PICTURE

Ohio State: The Buckeyes won on the road without a big game from Bates-Diop. The reigning two-time Big Ten Player of the Week, Bates-Dio entered the game leading the Big Ten in scoring (20.3) and third in rebounding (8.8).

Northwestern: With four starters back from the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats have fallen far short of expectations and are going to have turn things around in a hurry to make a case for another invitation to the dance.

UP NEXT

Ohio State: The Buckeyes host Minnesota on Saturday.

Northwestern: The Wildcats host Penn State on Saturday.

Reserve Harrell leads Creighton past No. 19 Pirates 80-63

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OMAHA, Neb. — Marcus Foster scored 25 points and reserve Ronnie Harrell Jr. had a career-high 18, and Creighton never trailed in an 80-63 win over No. 19 Seton Hall on Wednesday night.

The Bluejays (15-4, 5-2 Big East) split the season series with the Pirates (15-4, 4-2), avenging a 90-84 road loss last month in which they blew a double-digit lead and failed to score the last 3 1/2 minutes.

Creighton led by 16 points early but saw the Pirates pull to 39-32 at half. Harrell scored seven points during a 17-9 run to open the second half that put Creighton up 58-43.

Harrell later brought the sellout crowd to its feet with a behind-the-back move as he drove to the basket, and Foster urged on the fans to make more noise when Angel Delgado elbowed Toby Hegner for a flagrant-1 foul on the other end. It was Delgado’s fourth personal, and Hegner made the free throws for a 67-47 lead with 8 minutes to play.

Delgado, who came into the game off seven straight double-doubles and had 18 points and 14 rebounds in the first meeting with Creighton, was in foul trouble all night. He was limited to four points and four rebounds in 20 minutes. Desi Rodriguez, the Pirates’ season scoring leader, did not play in the second half and finished with four points.

Myles Powell led the Pirates with 19 points.

Seton Hall shot a season-low 38.1 percent, committed 17 turnovers and scored its fewest points of the season.

Creighton shot 51.7 percent, making it the first Seton Hall opponent to hit more than half its shots.

BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: This was a debacle from the beginning for the Pirates. Time to forget this one and get ready for the showdown with Xavier on Saturday.

Creighton: The Bluejays bounced back from a 22-point road loss to Xavier in resounding fashion.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: hosts No. 11 Xavier on Saturday.

Creighton: visits Providence on Saturday.