Belmont v Kansas

Five mid-majors who can throw your bracket into chaos

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A hearty welcome to those of you just now joining the rest of us in following college basketball now that football season has ended. We’ll be running a series of posts to get all you football fans caught up on the season at-large. To read through them all, click here.

Every March there seems to be a mid-major program that goes from being a team heard of by few to being a national darling. Here are five teams, all of whom will likely need to win their respective conference’s automatic bid, to keep an eye on as we get closer to the month of March.

1) Belmont (19-4, 10-0 OVC) 

After reaching the NCAA tournament as winners of the Atlantic Sun the Bruins have made themselves right at home in the OVC. Guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson are combining to average 32.6 points per game, and senior forward Trevor Noack (12.5 ppg) has raised his scoring average more than ten points from last season.

Rick Byrd’s team, which has wins over Stanford and Middle Tennessee to its credit, isn’t as deep as last season’s outfit but with an eight-man rotation the Bruins are deep enough. Belmont’s an efficient group offensively (ranking 15th nationally in offensive efficiency and 8th in field goal percentage), and when combining this with their experience at key positions this is a team that can win in the NCAA tournament.

2) Akron (17-4, 8-0 MAC) 

The nation’s hottest team, the Akron Zips have won 13 straight games and are the lone undefeated team in MAC play. Leading the way are 7-footer Zeke Marshall and 6-7 forward Demetrius Treadwell, with five other players averaging between 5.8 and 9.9 points per game. The Zips are one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, ranking 28th in efficiency according to statsheet.com and that front court tandem of Marshall and Treadwell can give opponents fits in the paint. The key for Akron in March may be point guard Alex Abreu however, because when he’s under control and properly balances getting his own shots with putting teammates in the best position to be effective Akron is a handful.

3) Middle Tennessee (20-4, 12-1 Sun Belt) 

Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders won 25 regular season games last season but a loss in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt tournament resulted in a trip to the NIT. So while their resume this season includes a win over Ole Miss (Middle Tennessee has lost to both Belmont and Akron), that experience and the fact that they have just three RPI Top 100 victories should keep this group motivated to grab the Sun Belt’s automatic bid.

Senior guard Marcos Knight is the lone Blue Raider averaging double figures but five others average between six and nine points per game, and this is a group that gets after it defensively. Middle Tennessee leads the Sun Belt in field goal and three-point percentage defense and they force 16.5 turnovers per game as well. If a team with shaky ball-handling draws the Blue Raiders come March, look out.

4) Bucknell (19-4, 6-1 Patriot) 

Dave Paulsen’s Bison are led by one of the best big men in the country in 6-10 senior Mike Muscala, who is currently averaging 19.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game (he leads the team in each category). Muscala is one of four Bucknell starters averaging double figures, and the Bison lead the Patriot League in field goal percentage.

The Bison have also performed well defensively, limiting opponents to 37.4% shooting (ranking 11th nationally), something they accomplish more with positioning as opposed to pressuring opponents into turnovers (opponents are averaging just 9.3 turnovers per game). Bucknell’s lone conference loss came to Lehigh (who won at Bucknell twice last season), so there’s no guarantee that we’ll see the Bison in the NCAA tournament. But if they can make it the Bison are capable of causing some trouble.

5) Montana (16-4, 12-0 Big Sky)

The Grizzlies had to navigate much of their non-conference slate without the services of senior guard Will Cherry due to a broken foot. But with the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year back in the fold Montana has the best tandem in the conference in Cherry and junior Kareem Jamar. Inside senior Mathias Ward averages a team-high 15.2 points per game, with the versatile Jamar being the team’s best rebounder.

With a two-game lead over Weber State the Grizzlies are in good position to grab home court for the conference tournament, something that served them well in getting to the NCAA tournament last season. With Cherry out other players gained valuable experience, and that could work out in Montana’s favor at the end of the year.

Other teams to consider: Davidson, Detroit, Lehigh, Louisiana Tech, North Dakota State, Valparaiso and Weber State. 

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej

Providence beats No. 21 Rhode Island 63-60

RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 19:  Head coach Ed Cooley of the Providence Friars  reacts in the first half against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at PNC Arena on March 19, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley knew the Rams were in for a tough one against Providence, which had won the matchup of cross-state rivals six straight times.

He didn’t see this coming, though.

Kyron Cartwright, who had made four 3-pointers all season, hit four of five from beyond the arc in the first half. The Providence point guard finished with 19 points and eight assists to lead the Friars to a 63-60 victory over No. 21 Rhode Island on Saturday.

“That’s sports, and that’s the type of thing that makes coaches go gray and lose their hair,” Hurley said after his team lost for the third time in four games. “Four 3-pointers in seven games and he made four today – all in the first half.”

Rodney Bullock scored 17 points for the Friars (6-2). Cartwright had 15 in the first half and Jalen Lindsey scored nine of his 13 points in the second, five during a 7-0 run that erased a seven-point deficit.

“My teammates were telling me, `You need to take those shots to open up the defense,”‘ Cartwright said. “(And) we don’t shoot the ball to not make it.”

Hassan Martin had 14 points and 17 rebounds for Rhode Island (5-3), which lost at unranked Valparaiso and Providence a week after falling to No. 1 Duke. E.C. Matthews scored nine points and went 1 for 8 from 3-point range, airballing a 3 with 2 seconds left with a chance for the Rams to tie it.

“Games like this might help us down the stretch,” Martin said. `’So you just tell everybody to keep their head up.”

The Rams led 47-40 with 12:15 left when Cartwright’s arm appeared to catch Christion Thompson in the left eye. Thompson went to the court, flailing his arms in the air looking for a call, but the teams played on until Lindsey hit a 3-pointer to make it a four-point game at 11:00.

Lindsey’s free throws brought the Friars within two points, and Ryan Fazekas scored on a fast-break goaltending call to tie it. From there, there were three more ties and kept the game within one possession until Lindsey hit a fallaway jumper with 43 seconds left to give Providence a 59-55 lead.

“We beat a tournament team today,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said.

POLL IMPLICATONS

It will be difficult for Rhode Island to stay in The Associated Press Top 25 after its stumbles.

Hurley said he isn’t concerned.

The goal at the beginning of the season was to win the Atlantic 10 and play in the NCAA Tournament.

That’s all still in play.

“We expect to have a long and great season. Nothing’s changed for us,” he said. “We lost two tough road games in a long season.”

BULLOCK’S BOUNCE-BACK

Bullock scored a career-high 36 points against New Hampshire on Wednesday, but he missed all three shots from the field in the first half and had only three points on six free throws at the break.

Cooley told him not to worry about the shooting and to try to make something happen with rebounding or defense.

“Somebody coming of a great scoring game like he did there’s going to be a lot of attention on him,” Cooley said. “I thought he showed some definite grit in the second half.”

TIP-INS

Rhode Island: Martin hit all three of his 3-point attempts in the first half. … Martin surpassed the 1,000-point milestone against Valparaiso on Tuesday. … The Rams have lost nine straight to Big East teams.

Providence: The Friars lead the all-time series 73-56, including a buzzer-beating victory last year in Kingston. … They are 1-1 against ranked teams this season, having lost to then-No. 7 Virginia on Nov. 26.

UP NEXT

Rhode Island: Hosts Old Dominion on Tuesday.

Providence: Hosts Brown on Tuesday.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.

Chris Holtman not pleased with No. 18 Butler after easy win

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 25:  Kelan Martin #30 of the Butler Bulldogs drives against Kadeem Allen #5 and Chance Comanche #21 of the Arizona Wildcats during the championship game of the 2016 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on November 25, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Butler won 69-65.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Butler coach Chris Holtman looked troubled as he addressed the media on Saturday.

Kelan Martin finished with 30 points and six rebounds, and Tyler Wideman added 10 points and 10 rebounds, and the 18th-ranked Bulldogs defeated Central Arkansas 82-58.

Still, despite the 24-point blowout win, Holtman’s disappointment in himself and his players was written all over his face, clearly weighing heavily on his mind.

Holtman, who is in his third season as Butler’s coach, noted that Central Arkansas bothered the Bulldogs (8-0) in a lot of ways. Holtman did not bring any Butler players with him to the podium after the game.

“Give Central Arkansas credit. I think they did a lot of things that bothered us. I don’t think we played very well in stretches, I don’t think we prepared very well. That concerned me the last couple of days. I don’t think we practiced well. Ultimately that’s on me. That’s my fault. You can come up with a couple of different explanations for (our performance), I just don’t ever want to see it again,” Holtman said.

The Bulldogs looked impressive in the box score on Saturday. Butler scored 24 points off 16 Central Arkansas turnovers. The Bulldogs scored nearly half their points down low, finishing with 32 in the paint. Butler capitalized on 10 offensive rebounds by finishing the game with 16 second-chance points. One of the few compliments Holtman did give to his team was its ability to share the basketball and create opportunities. Butler’s offense relied on good ball movement as 22 of its 31 field goals came by way of an assist.

Butler played a good first half and went into halftime up by 12 points. The Bulldogs had their fair share of hiccups in the first half, turning the ball over a couple times and missing a few free throws. But the source of Holtman’s frustration with his squad’s performance came in the second half, when it looked as if the Bears were going to give the Bulldogs a fight halfway through the final 20 minutes. Butler was forced to call a timeout with about 12 minutes remaining in the game due to Central Arkansas (1-7) cutting the deficit to just eight points.

Following the timeout, Butler willed a 17-2 run to stretch the lead to 74-51. Butler opened up its run in the midst of a scoring drought for Central Arkansas. The Bears didn’t make a field goal for nearly 7 minutes, shooting 1 of 9. Central Arkansas’ only two points during that time came by way of free throws.

The Bulldogs’ largest lead of the game was a product of their second-half-scoring run, pulling ahead by 25 points.

“We are at our best when we understand our margin for error is very, very small and we have an understanding there’s an expectation and a standard of how we want to play. I think we did that at times today, but not nearly as much as we need to. We’re going to have to play better – much better – than what we did,” Holtman said.

Jordan Howard led Central Arkansas with 20 points and Derreck Brooks finished with 15.

The road game was a measuring stick for Central Arkansas. The Bears used Saturday’s game against a quality opponent as a foundation to work from for the rest of the season.

“We’re trying to measure ourselves against really good teams and get better,” Central Arkansas coach Russ Pennell said. “When we play teams like Butler, and we’re going to be playing Michigan soon, it’s a chance to measure ourselves and our (players).”

BIG PICTURE

With a big win over No. 8 Arizona, the undefeated Bulldogs are generating a buzz. Butler will face five more opponents, including Cincinnati and No. 13 Indiana, before it opens conference play at St. John’s on Dec. 29.

POLL IMPLICATIONS: The Bulldogs’ next big test against a ranked opponent will come on Dec. 17 when they face No. 13 Indiana in the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis

UP NEXT:

Central Arkansas visits Arkansas-Little Rock on Saturday

Butler visits Indiana State on Wednesday

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.

No. 8 Gonzaga outlasts depleted No. 16 Arizona

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 27:  Przemek Karnowski #24 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs attempts a shot during the game against the Iowa State Cyclones at HP Field House on November 27, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
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No. 8 Gonzaga jumped out to a 23-9 lead and held on as No. 16 Arizona rallied down the stretch, beating the Wildcats 69-62 in Los Angeles on Sunday night.

The Bulldogs got 18 points and a pair of blocks from 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski’s whose impact on this game cannot be measured by the box score. Karnowski is an unbelievable passer out of the post, but he’s also a terrific scorer that almost has to be double-teamed. And when that double-team comes, the ball is out of his hands and into the hands of an open teammate.

The big man is also a force on the defensive end of the floor, where his size allows him to take up space in the lane and his length causes all kinds of problems for players trying to finish in the paint.

That’s worth noting because he isn’t anywhere near to being the most-heralded player on that roster. That title probably goes to Nigel Williams-Goss, who was all-Pac 12 at Washington. Or Jordan Mathews, who averaged 13 points the last two seasons at Cal. Johnathan Williams III was a top 50 prospect. Zach Collins was a McDonald’s All-American. Josh Perkins was recruited by Kentucky.

Point being, this is a very good Gonzaga team, one with talent and depth.

And Karnowski is as important as anyone on the roster.

It’s also worth noting here that Arizona put up an impressive fight for a team playing with seven guys right now. Parker Jackson-Cartwright sprained his ankle Wednesday night. Allonzo Trier still isn’t playing. And the Wildcats fought back from 14 points down in the first eight minutes to make this a game down the stretch.

Arizona has a lot of issues right now.

But there’s still talent on this roster and this is still a team of kids that are going to battle every time they take the floor.

SATURDAY’S SNACKS: Big road wins for UCLA, West Virginia

MADISON, WI - DECEMBER 03:  Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers is defended by Kristian Doolittle #11 of the Oklahoma Sooners during the first half of a game at the Kohl Center on December 3, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 11 UCLA 97, No. 1 Kentucky 92

This one was a ton of fun to watch as UCLA shook off a sluggish start to run past Kentucky at Rupp Arena. CBT’s Rob Dauster has the story on this one and why it was important for both teams.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

No. 25 West Virginia 66, No. 6 Virginia 57: Bob Huggins’ group has a potential signature victory as West Virginia won a big one on the road. I have more about why this one is particularly important for West Virginia here.

No. 9 Baylor 76, No. 7 Xavier 61: The Bears added to what is the best résumé in college basketball with an impressive win over a very good Xavier team. Manu Lecomte was the star of the show, finishing with 24 points and five assists. We went in depth on this game here.

No. 5 Duke 94, Maine 55: It wasn’t the outcome as much as the fact that Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden returned to the floor.

No. 8 Gonzaga 69, No. 16 Arizona 62: The Bulldogs got 18 points from Przemek Karnowski and 16 points from Josh Perkins as they were able to get past a depleted Arizona team dealing with a myriad of injuries. Credit to Arizona, however. They were down 14 points early and managed to make this a game.

Providence 63, No. 21 Rhode Island 60: That’s back-to-back losses for the Rams, and a really nice win for a young Friars team. Kyron Cartwright led the way with 19 points and eight assists.

STARRED

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: After just missing a triple-double in a big win over Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge earlier this week, Hayes dominated in a 90-70 win over Oklahoma with 28 points on 10-for-13 shooting. Hayes made both of his three-point attempts and also added six assists and two rebounds. Hayes is playing like an All-American lately.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Speaking of All-American caliber play, the senior guard put up a triple-double in the Wildcats’ 88-57 win over Saint Joseph’s as he finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Hart was 6-for-10 from the field and 3-for-6 from three-point territory as he had a tremendous outing.

Sebastian Saez, Ole Miss: Underrated nationally, the senior forward had his fourth double-double of the year with 20 points and 16 rebounds in a win over Memphis. Saez also added three blocks as he now has 12 or more rebounds in five games this season.

Anthony Livingston, Texas Tech: The Red Raiders needed three free throws from Livingston with under three seconds left for a one-point win over Rice as Livingston finished with 33 points and seven rebounds.

Collin Smith, George Washington: Also knocking in a huge go-ahead bucket was Smith as his three-pointer with three seconds left gave the Colonials a win over USF. Smith ended up with 22 points and eight rebounds.

STRUGGLED

E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island: Matthews finished 3-for-13 from the floor with just nine points as No. 21 Rhode Island lost their second straight game, this time falling to Providence, 63-60, on the road.

JeQuan Lewis, VCU: Lewis had 23 points and 11 assists in a come-from-behind win over Princeton during the week, but he had just three points and one assists – and turned an ankle – in a 64-46 loss to Illinois in Miami on Saturday.

San Diego State: The Aztecs took a 65-59 loss to Loyola (IL) on Saturday, a loss that puts SDSU is an all-too-familiar hole: Bad losses on their résumé that they won’t be able to make up for in league play.

TOP 25

  • No. 2 Kansas shook off a slow start to knock off Stanford in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, 89-74. Reid Travis was terrific for the Cardinal, finishing with 29 points and nine boards.
  • Marcus Foster had 27 points and Mo Watson Jr. went for 14 points and 13 assists as No. 10 Creighton beat Akron, 82-70.
  • No. 14 Louisville overcame a 40-point performance from DeWayne Russell as they knocked off a good Grand Canyon team on the road, 79-70.
  • Using a balanced scoring effort, No. 15 Purdue picked up an easy home win over Morehead State. Freshman guard Carsen Edwards knocked down four triples to finish with a team-high 16 points while Caleb Swanigan and P.J. Thompson both finished with 13 points and six assists.
  • Kelan Martin went for 30 points as No. 18 Butler knocked off Central Arkansas, 82-58.
  • Andrew White hit seven threes and finished with 26 points while Franklin Howard chipped in with 13 assists for No. 22 Syracuse as they held on to beat North Florida, 77-71, in the Carrier Dome.
  • Tyler Dorsey scored 29 points as No. 23 Oregon beat Savannah State, 128-59.

NOTABLE

  • USC remained undefeated this season with a win over BYU despite playing without Bennie Boatright.
  • Michigan State avoided a loss at home to Oral Roberts despite playing without Miles Bridges. That’s a positive, I guess.
  • Torin Dorn and Terry Henderson combined for 45 points as N.C. State held on to beat Boston U., 77-73.
  • Solid win for Wake Forest on the road at Richmond as John Collins had 16 points, 13 rebounds.
  • TCU moved to 8-0 on the season with a 23 point win over a good Arkansas State team.

No. 4 Kansas cruises to 89-74 victory over Stanford

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks is reacts after making a basket during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) Jerrod Haase received a long, loud ovation upon his return to Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday.

The rest of the cheers were for the Jayhawks.

Frank Mason III scored 20 points, Devonte Graham delivered an early 3-point barrage and fourth-ranked Kansas pulled away late for an 89-74 victory over Stanford, spoiling the return of the Cardinal’s coach to the building where he once starred as a player.

“Certainly an emotional day,” Haase said. “My emotions right now are more frustrated we didn’t play at a higher level, but for me personally, it means a lot – the reception.”

The Jayhawks (7-1) hardly greeted him as warmly, using their speed, depth and outside shooting to turn a 43-35 halftime lead into another rout at a building that has seen its share of them.

“We talked about how they packed the lane and how we were going to have to drive, pitch and drive it again,” Graham said. “We just did a good job of moving the ball, attacking bad close-outs and having the confidence to let them fly.”

Graham hit five 3s and finished with 15 points, and Josh Jackson and Svi Mykhailiuk added 13 points apiece, as the Jayhawks won for the 44th consecutive time in their old barn.

Reid Travis had a career-best 29 points and nine rebounds for Stanford (6-3), doing most of his damage at the free throw line. The career 54 percent free throw shooter was 19 of 22, breaking the school record for makes set by Todd Lichti against UC Santa Barbara during the 1987-88 season.

Travis also set records for makes and attempts in a game against Kansas. Rayford Young of Texas Tech hit 18 foul shots in February 1999 and Iowa State’s Craig Brackins attempted 21 in January 2009.

“I felt like my teammates did a great job of establishing me early, getting me in the post,” Travis said. “I knew I had to draw a lot of fouls, get us to the line early and get a rhythm going.”

After falling into an early deficit, Kansas coach Bill Self began going with a bigger lineup to deal with Travis in the paint, and that seemed to open up Graham on the perimeter. He knocked down all five of his 3-pointers in the first half, helping the Jayhawks to a 43-35 lead.

Stanford kept going to Travis inside, and the 6-foot-8 brute kept going to the free throw line. During two separate stretches of the second half, he made four free throws in less than a minute.

“He drew basically 17 fouls on four guys, so that just goes to tell you we didn’t play the scouting report,” Self said. “Our guys just played butt-behind and let him go wherever he wanted to go.”

The Jayhawks showcased their versatility in other areas, though.

Down the stretch, Jackson scored on a nifty dunk off an alley-oop pass, Mason got a tilting runner to go while crashing to the floor, and Mykhailiuk knocked down 3-pointers from the wing that sent the lead ballooning toward 20 late in the game.

BIG PICTURE

Stanford’s first-year coach played three seasons for the Jayhawks under Roy Williams, and later served as their director of basketball operations. Haase then followed Williams to North Carolina, but he was fondly received on Saturday, getting a massive ovation from an appreciative crowd.

“I remember clearly walking into Allen Fieldhouse when I was first recruited,” Haase said, “and I think I’ll remember the feeling at shootaround today, walking into the arena.”

Kansas snapped a two-game skid against the Cardinal that included an NCAA Tournament loss in 2014, when Andrew Wiggins and Co. couldn’t slow down Stanford in St. Louis. The Jayhawks were even able to get their benchwarmers some action for the third straight game.

STATS AND STREAK

Mason led the Jayhawks in scoring for the fifth time in eight games. … Kansas had 20 assists and only nine turnovers. … Travis was just 5 of 14 from the field. … Stanford was 2 of 8 from beyond the arc. … The Cardinal only had seven assists on 21 field goals.

UP NEXT

Stanford gets nearly two weeks off before playing Cal State East Bay on Dec. 16.

Kansas continues its six-game home stand against Missouri-Kansas City on Tuesday night.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.