photo courtesy Northeastern Athletics

2013 Colonial Athletic Association tournament preview

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Oy, what a mess.

For the past decade, the CAA tournament was one of the hottest mid-major tourneys going. Annual battles between VCU, George Mason, Old Dominion and other tough teams from the league presaged Big Dance upsets and even Final Four runs. This year? Not so much.

VCU is tearing up the A-10. Old Dominion fell off a cliff and fired Blaine Taylor, and they’re off to C-USA next season. George Mason is mediocre, and preseason favorite Drexel never got going this year. Half of the league’s remaining schools aren’t eligible for the postseason tourney because of impending realignment or APR-related sanctions. The league’s best story – the record turnaround of Towson – won’t be continued in the postseason due to academic issues, in fact.

The biggest casualty in all this? Rock Fight Friday, the traditional opening round in which the league’s also-rans battled for the opportunity to face the league leaders – earners of byes – on Saturday. With the wonky field this year, No. 1 seed Northeastern gets to wait until Sunday for an opponent, while everyone else must battle on Saturday.

The teams that are left standing this year aren’t a bad lot, but none was able to effectively dominate during the regular season. Even Northeastern took a couple of head-scratching losses. In essence, this tournament is wiiiiiide open, and only the auto-bid winner is going to sniff the NCAAs. That makes every game count, and that’s compelling television.

The Bracket

Where: Richmond Coliesum in Richmond, VA

When: March 9 -March 11

Final: March 11, 7:00 p.m., NBCSN

Favorite: Northeastern

The Huskies have the best offense in the CAA this season, led by sharpshooter Joel Smith and all-around threat Quincy Ford. They excel on the perimeter, where they’re shooting over 37 percent as a team. Now, for the bad news: Northeastern is in the league’s lower echelon in terms of defense, which contributed to horrific losses to postseason ineligible cellar-dwellers UNC-Wilmington and Old Dominion – the latter in the final game of the season. We’ll stipulate that the Huskies earned the favorites role by winning more league games than anyone else, but they are vulnerable.

And if they lose?: George Mason

The Patriots have been as baffling as anyone else in the CAA this season. Given that uncertainty, it is worth noting that they deploy the best defense in the league, and their offense is dangerous when it’s not suffering the league-wide yips that have affected every team to take the floor. For the rest of the eligible teams, this is a big year – the auto-bid has been owned by Virginia-based teams – specifically Mason, VCU and ODU – for years. They’ll be gunning for Mason as the most likely team to continue the trend, and thus the team everyone wants to take down.

Sleepers: All of ’em. I’m not kidding. Delaware is top of this list – loaded with talent but bafflingly inconsistent this season, they may pull it together at the right time. Preseason favorite Drexel is also mega-talented, but seems woefully out of sync. Hofstra and William and Mary seem unlikely, but it’s that kind of season in the CAA. James Madison may be a true dark horse, having earned the league’s No. 3 seed. Sentiment is on the side of the Tribe, who have never made the NCAA tournament, and are sick and bloody tired of me pointing that out.

Studs:

Joel Smith, Northeastern: Smith can shoot his team in or out of any game they play, which is rough in a single-elimination event, but his season-long habit has been consistent excellence when the ball leaves his fingertips.

Devon Saddler, Delaware: The Blue Hens have suffered some injuries and had some letdowns this season, but Saddler has been an iron man throughout. The junior guard averages 20.2 points per game and contributes his fair share of steals, assists and rebounds as well. Delaware is the No. 2 seed in the tourney, and they can break through if Saddler puts the team on his back yet again.

Damion Lee, Drexel: The 6’6″ Lee is just one reason we thought Drexel would dominate the CAA this season. He’s just a sophomore, but he’s been playing like a warrior for the Dragons. He may not be enough to rescue them this season, but his skills – alongside those of stud freshman Tavon Allen – give Drexel fans hope for the future.

Invisible Heroes: Thanks to a combination of bad academics and the CAA’s punitive banning of any program that is leaving for greener pastures, we’re missing out on a handful of superior players on our TV screens this March. Foremost amongst them is Towson’s Jerelle Benimon, who has been an absolute beast in helping to turn the program around this year. Also sadly sitting home this weekend: R.J. Hunter of Georgia State and Keith Rendleman of Wilmington.

CBT Prediction: Drexel – a very good defensive team – locks down and takes the auto-bid as karmic repayment for all the times Bruiser Flint had a valid at-large profile and got snubbed. Because he’s due. That’s the way it works, right?

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

PHOTO: Nevada wearing pink jerseys to honor Coaches vs. Cancer this week

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Nevada announced that they’ll be wearing special pink uniforms for the next two games to promote cancer awareness.

The Wolf Pack will wear the jerseys on Wednesday (Jan. 25) on the road against Boise State and at home on Saturday (Jan. 28) against New Mexico.

“We are extremely excited and honored to release our new Pink “Cancer-Awareness” Jerseys. It was apparent very early in our time here, that many members of our Nevada Wolf Pack Basketball Program and in our Pack community have been affected or are currently being affected by cancer,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said in the release. “We could not be more proud to help support the cause and unite to fight this horrible and devastating disease.”

 

UCLA is no longer a Final Four contender if their defense doesn’t improve

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s win over No. 8 UCLA was massive for No. 7 Arizona for a number of reasons.

They got Allonzo Trier back into the fold. They remained undefeated atop the Pac-12 standings, keeping pace with an Oregon team that’s dealing with another Dillon Brooks foot injury and getting ready to make the nightmarish trip to the Mountain schools, Utah and Colorado, this weekend. They took a two game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings.

Perhaps more importantly, the Wildcats certified themselves as a legitimate threat to get to the Final Four. Their 17-2 record entering Saturday was pretty. A win at Pauley finally gave that résumé some substance.

So good for Arizona.

But that wasn’t the biggest story line coming out of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

UCLA’s defense, or lack thereof, was.

Ever since the Bruins went into Rupp Arena and knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky, UCLA has been considered one of the very best teams in the country. Villanova’s up there, too. So is Kansas, and Gonzaga, and those Kentucky Wildcats. North Carolina probably should be in that conversation as well. Maybe Baylor, maaaybe Florida State.

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You get my point. The Bruins, for better or worse, were one of the handful of teams that everyone thought would enter the NCAA tournament as a favorite to win the national title, but it’s time for us to question whether or not that is actually the case. That’s how bad the UCLA defense has been this season, particularly of late.

Against Arizona, the Bruins were a train-wreck. They gave up 96 points on 1.315 points-per-possession, which, for those of you who aren’t into advanced stats, is atrocious. That game was the culmination of a four-game stretch where UCLA’s defense had gone from concerning-but-good-enough to a major red flag. In those four games – road trips to Colorado and Utah and home games against Arizona and Arizona State – the Bruins allowed an abysmal 1.153 PPP. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Kentucky team that went 38-1, the best defense we’ve seen in the KenPom era, gave up 0.847 PPP. UCLA averages 75 possessions a game, which is a difference of 23 points over 40 minutes.

That’s a big deal.

And on the season, UCLA has fallen the way to 125th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

That’s a bigger deal.

For those that don’t know, KenPom.com is a website that ranks teams based on how many points they score and allow per possession, adjusted for schedule strength. It’s widely considered the best way to determine who the best offensive, the best defensive and the best overall teams are.

It’s been around since 2002.

And since 2002, given where UCLA’s defense is today, they would be the second-worst defensive team to ever get to a Final Four.

In 2011, VCU ranked 138th in defensive efficiency as of Selection Sunday*, and they are the only team to ever rank outside the top 80 in defensive efficiency and make it all the way to the Final Four. Only three other teams have ranked outside the top 50 and made it to the final weekend of the season: Marquette in 2003 (76th), Butler in 2011 (72nd) and Michigan in 2013 (66th). Two others ranked outside the top 40 and won at least four games in the Big Dance: Texas in 2003 (46th) and Wisconsin in 2014 (50th):

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*(All of this info is via KenPom.com and as of Selection Sunday in those given seasons. That’s important to note, because winning games against good teams in the tournament changes those stats.)

The precedent is there.

UCLA, unquestionably, has to get better defensively if they want to win a national title.

But all hope is not lost.

The two teams with the lowest defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament to win the national title – North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015 – both had top three offenses nationally.

UCLA leads the nation in offensive efficiency.

AP Poll: Villanova, Kansas neck-and-neck for No. 1

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 13: Head coach Jay Wright and Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats congratulate Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the second half against the Temple Owls at The Pavilion on December 13, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls 78-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova maintained a slim lead over Kansas for the No. 1 spot in this week’s AP poll, with Gonzaga being the only other program to receive any first place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

After losing to Arizona at home, UCLA dropped to eighth as the Wildcats vaulted them into No. 7 in the poll.

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1. Villanova (35 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (28)
3. Gonzaga (2)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. Florida State
7. Arizona
8. UCLA
9. North Carolina
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Virginia
13. Louisville
14. Notre Dame
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Saint Mary’s
22. Maryland
23. South Carolina
24. Xavier
25. Florida

Coaches Poll: Kansas remains No. 1, Villanova No. 2

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 21: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives to the goal against Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns in the first half at Allen Field House on January 21, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Kansas remained No. 1 in the Coaches Poll this week, getting 18 of the 32 first-place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

Villanova sits at No. 2 in the poll, with Gonzaha in third, the only other team to receive a first-place vote.

After beating UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, Arizona jumped up to No. 9 but still sits two spots behind UCLA at No. 7.

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1. Kansas (18 first-place votes)
2. Villanova (11)
3. Gonzaga (3)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. North Carolina
7. UCLA
8. Florida State
9. Arizona
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Notre Dame
13. Virginia
14. Louisville
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Sainy Mary’s
22. Xavier
23. Maryland
24. South Carolina
25. Florida

College Basketball Talk Top 25: It gets muddy after a clear-cut top four

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the first half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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This week’s rankings were probably more difficult to put together than any week so far this season.

The top four, frankly, seem pretty obvious. I have Villanova No. 1, but I would have no qualms with ranking any of Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga in that No. 1 spot. I expect those to be the four teams that get votes for No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls this week.

After that, however, is when it gets difficult. Are you going to rank North Carolina above Florida State? UNC beat the Seminoles when they squared off this season but that was the Seminoles lone loss in a six game run against ranked teams. I went with Carolina over them because, simply, I think UNC is a better team.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the top three teams in the Pac-12. Arizona just won at UCLA and they got Allonzo Trier back. Oregon also owns a win over the Bruins, but there’s came at home on a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks, who is dealing with a foot injury again. And while UCLA has consistently proven to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, they are a nightmare defensively right now.

Where does West Virginia slot in after a pair of losses? What about Creighton without Mo Watson Jr.? Butler’s profile looks great but their performance on the floor has been less than stellar since their win over Villanova. Is Duke actually back?

You can find the rankings below. What did I get wrong?

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1. Villanova (19-1, Last Week No. 1)
2. Kentucky (17-2, 2)
3. Kansas (18-1, 4)
4. Gonzaga (19-0, 5)
5. North Carolina (18-3, 5)
6. Baylor (18-1, 7)
7. Florida State (18-2, 8)
8. Arizona (18-2, 16)
9. UCLA (19-2, 3)
10. Oregon (18-2, 10)
11. Louisville (16-4, 11)
12. Wisconsin (16-3, 13)
13. Purdue (16-4, 15)
14. Notre Dame (17-3, 17)
15. Cincinnati (17-2, 18)
16. Duke (15-4, 19)
17. West Virginia (15-4, 10)
18. Butler (17-3, 14)
19. Creighton (18-2, 12)
20. Saint Mary’s (17-2, 20)
21. Virginia (16-3, 22)
22. South Carolina (15-4, 24)
23. Maryland (17-2, 25)
24. Kansas State (15-4, NR)
25. Iowa State (12-6, NR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 21 Xavier, No. 23 Florida
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Kansas State, No. 25 Iowa State