Derek Kellogg

Atlantic 10 can remain strong conference without Butler, Xavier, Temple and Charlotte

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

The Atlantic 10 Conference saw a record five teams play in the NCAA tournament in 2013, with every single team advancing to at least the Round of 32. That was before conference realignment struck again, as the Catholic 7 claimed Butler and Xavier, the AAC brought on Temple, and Charlotte headed back to Conference USA.

Butler and Temple accounted for two of those five bids last spring, and all four of the departing teams were ranked in the RPI top 100. The A-10 took a blow, but the league has been resilient, especially in the ever changing college landscape.

“The A-10 has kind of sustained the test of time,” UMass head coach Derek Kellogg told NBCSports.com in a phone interview. “There has been a lot of changing and transformation within the league the last 15-20 years, dating back to when Rutgers, West Virginia and schools like that were in the A-10.”

The conference had 16 teams last year, and by the start of the 2014-2015 season, that number will be back up to 14, thanks to the addition of two programs with strong basketball histories. George Mason joins the A-10 this season, replacing one Final Four team (Butler) for another, as Kellogg said. The following season Davidson joins the conference as the 14th member.

“The A-10 historically been a very strong conference and we are a basketball-centric conference,” Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said last Tuesday at the league’s media day. “We know who we are and we want to stay focused on that and we want to be successful.”

George Mason fields a club football team and Davidson’s football program is in the FCS, which gives the A-10 two new members that a focused and locked in its basketball programs.

“I think realignment is inevitable,” Kellogg said, “but the A-10 is one of those leagues, where its priorities are that of a basketball league. We’ll be able to compete on a national level because the schools are committed to their coaches, their programs and their basketball teams.”

“I think we’ve done a good job of bringing in schools as this transformation has gone on. That softens the blow of losing traditional A-10 schools.”

UMass ended up on the wrong side of the bubble on Selection Sunday, but in hindsight, after seeing what the five teams in the tournament did, you can make a good case that the Minutemen deserved a bid. Kellogg, now in his sixth season at his alma mater, is looking to take his program to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.

source: AP
AP

Shaka Smart and VCU are ranked heading into the season, and are the favorites in the Atlantic 10. Havoc in all likelihood will return to the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season, but who will be joining the Rams from the conference will be the big question this season. Despite all losses of Butler, Charlotte, Temple and Xavier, it’s not inconceivable to see the A-10 get as many as four bids this season.

“We have three returning tournament teams, and those teams are all rated highly,” Kellogg said of his conference. “Then I think you have three or four teams in that next group that are all vying to chip away. A lot of it will do with how we play out of conference. A lot of teams have upgrade their schedules. Would five be a stretch? … We’d have to play really well [as a conference] to get that. But there will be four, five, as many as six teams in the conversation.”

La Salle comes back after a Sweet Sixteen run in March, returning the back court of Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland. Saint Louis, not Butler or VCU, finished atop the conference standings and won the A-10 tournament. The Billikens return a conference Player of the Year candidate, Dwayne Evans, along with three other starters. Then there is UMass, who could pick up quality non-conference wins against LSU, Boston College, BYU and Providence this season and get to play La Salle, Saint Louis and VCU all at home during conference play.

In the preseason the A-10 has four teams with realistic shots at bids, as the league attempts to build off the momentum of last March. But for the A-10, it isn’t just this year that looks promising. The conference has devoted new memberships to schools with a focus on their basketball teams, but the it’s the universities themselves are providing their programs with the resources to be stable fixtures in college basketball for the future.

This offseason, Saint Louis removed the interim label and made Jim Crews the head coach. Shaka Smart, Dr. John Giannini, and Danny Hurley were all awarded extensions by their respective schools. Crews, Smart, and Giannini all took their programs to the NCAA tournament, while Hurley is building towards that goal in his third season at URI.

St. Bonventure’s Andrew Nicholson was the last player drafted from the A-10 back in 2012. Although, the league didn’t have an NBA draftee this season, it still managed to produce five tournament teams. As Matt Norlander writes, that’s a product of Atlantic 10 programs building teams with three and four year guys; quality players that tend to have playing careers overseas.

“It’s underrated. It’s been underrated since I’ve been [at Dayton],” Flyers head coach Archie Miller told reporters. “There’s a lot of guys on a lot of teams that can play heavy roles anywhere win the country. There’s really legitimate, high-level players who come into the league. The last couple of seasons, with success in the NCAA, in some cases guys are a little older.”

It’s also the image the Atlantic 10 gives, such as hosting its conference tournament in the brand-new, luxurious Barclay’s Center.

“We are portraying an image of being big-time basketball, playing in what I consider the nicest arena in the world at this particular moment,” Kellogg said. “We are in one of the top media markets in the world, and that has helped solidify the message that we were trying to send, that we are on the same stage.”

The Atlantic 10 solidified that message last season, and will look to reinforce the notion that its a power conference again this season.

Three Takeaways from N.C. State’s win over No. 17 Duke

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Head coach Mark Gottfried talks to Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Freshman Dennis Smith Jr. had a monster performance as he scored 32 points and had six assists to lead the Wolfpack past No. 17 Duke for an ACC road win.

Here are three takeaways for an important win for N.C. State.

1. This is the Dennis Smith Jr. (and N.C. State) that we envisioned 

Before this season N.C. State received a lot of hype with some pundits — including NBCSports.com — because people knew that freshman Dennis Smith Jr. was a lottery pick talent and there were other pieces around him that could be productive. Smith has mostly lived up to his top-five hype this season but Monday night’s game saw the North Carolina native go to another level.

Smith comes from a family of N.C. State fans. It is part of the reason he selected the Wolfpack even though they aren’t a one-and-done factory like some other schools. The Wolfpack hadn’t won in Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995 and this year’s N.C. State had lost four of five ACC games entering Monday.

And Smith went completely bonkers. He finished with 32 points and six assists as he was 4-for-6 from three-point range.

At the end of the first half when it looked like Duke might take a double-digit lead into the break, Smith converted a three-point play and followed it up with a tough, contested three to make it a six-point game. The second half saw more of the same from Smith as he nailed pull-up threes, got to the rim and finished through traffic. It was the type of mesmerizing performance that gets casual basketball fans excited about a player before March Madness begins.

Smith wasn’t the only good player for N.C. State on Monday. Freshman big man Ted Kapita gave crucial minutes inside as he registered his first career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Abdul Malik-Abu was a great secondary option for Smith as he contributed 19 points and nine rebounds. Maverick Rowan (nine points) hit a key late three and some important free throws.

When this team has all of its pieces going you can see why so many people believed N.C. State was capable of the Sweet 16. It feels like this team could be in for a run and the road game at Louisville on Sunday is another major test.

2. Duke is still figuring out its ideal rotation (while getting some answers)

Interim coach Jeff Capel went to some interesting lineup choices on Monday night. Capel started the game by using the lineup that jumpstarted Duke’s second half against Miami. That meant increased minutes for freshman center Marques Bolden as he was paired with Jayson Tatum (16 points) and Frank Jackson.

Seniors Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson were the interchangeable parts who played the most minutes in the first half for the Blue Devils and the second unit included Grayson Allen (13 points), Luke Kennard (20 points) and Harry Giles.

The Blue Devils still have some disjointed sets and scorers are still struggling to play with Tatum at times but there were some promising signs. Giles (eight points, seven rebounds) continues to improve his natural timing and he knocked down a face-up jumper from 17 feet with ease that could help keep defenders honest on him.

There was some good but there was also some bad. Bolden regressed to being a non-factor once again and Allen struggled to find a consistent scoring touch with a 4-for-13 performance.

We still have yet to see the (mostly) full strength Blue Devils that make us believe they are a national title contender. It’ll be interesting to see which lineup ultimately plays the best for Duke but they’re struggling to figure out a consistent rotation.

3. Can N.C. State sustain this kind of effort on a nightly basis?

Monday night was N.C. State’s first road win of the season. So for as big as this win is, the Wolfpack still have a long way to go to becoming a consistent factor in a ridiculously deep ACC. Smith is going to get tested quite a bit by Louisville’s length and athleticism on Sunday and playing in front of that Cardinal crowd is one of the hardest things to do in college basketball.

It doesn’t get any easier for N.C. State and they can’t have a major letdown after the high of a road win like this. That losing stretch of four out of five games included some really bad losses. Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are the kind of losses that tournament teams can’t sustain on a regular basis so the Wolfpack have to take care of  business against teams like that for the rest of the season.

Success on the road will also help N.C. State’s tournament cause. This Duke win is nice but now the Wolfpack get two more cracks at top-15 teams away from home with Louisville and Florida State in the next two weeks. If N.C. State can somehow split those road games and stay strong at home they’ll be in good shape the rest of the way.

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