The two best teams in the Ivy League, with matching 4-0 league records, meet for the first time this season. The Lions were close to suffering their first loss last weekend, but an Alex Rosenberg jumper as time expired gave the Lions the win at reigning champion Harvard. Rosenberg’s one of four players averaging at least 12.2 points per game for Kyle Smith’s team, with senior guard Maodo Lo leading the way at 15.8 per contest.
They’ll face a Yale rotation led offensively by point guard Makai Mason (15.7 ppg, 4.1 apg), and the front court tandem of Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod has been outstanding. The winner get a leg up in the Ivy race, with the rematch scheduled for March 5 in New York City (regular season finale).
THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: Central Michigan at Akron, 8:00 p.m.
Two of the top teams in the Mid-American Conference meet at the JAR, as Akron looks to extend its win streak to six straight. The Zips’ balanced offensive attack has been led by forward Isaiah Johnson (12.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg), who currently leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. As for the visiting Chippewas, guards Braylon Rayson and Chris Fowler combine to average 32.7 points per game, with Fowler also responsible for a MAC-best 6.3 assists per contest. CMU’s had some struggles on the defensive glass in league play, ranking 11th in that category, but they’ve done a better job defensively than they did in non-conference play.
OTHER NOTABLE GAMES
MAAC leader Monmouth is back in action, as they host a Fairfield team led by one of the conference’s best players in senior forward Marcus Gilbert. The Hawks have a deep lineup led by junior guard Justin Robinson, who at this point in time is the likely frontrunner for MAAC Player of the Year honors.
Looking to catch Monmouth is Iona, which is a game behind the Hawks at 9-3. A.J. English and the Gaels visit Canisius in a matchup that should not lack for offense. Iona’s more inclined to run, but Canisius doesn’t lack scorers either with guard Malcolm McMillan leading four players averaging double figures.
Given the fact that they’re 1-3 in Ivy League play, Harvard’s essentially in the spoiler role unless some chaos breaks out at the top end of the standings. The Crimson can help in that regard with a win at Princeton, with the Tigers (2-1) a game behind Columbia and Yale in the loss column. Princeton’s been the better offensive team this season, thanks in large part to junior forward Henry Caruso who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding.
Every March some plucky underdog seemingly comes out of nowhere to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament, wrecking brackets across the country in the process. The key word in that sentence is “seemingly,” because each year there are teams that show signs throughout the season that they’re capable of winning once in the NCAA tournament.
Below are ten programs capable of pulling off an upset in the NCAA tournament as we approach the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
1. UAB: Jerod Haase’s Blazers pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2015 NCAA tournament, as they sent home three-seed and trendy Final Four pick Iowa State in the round of 64. All five starters from that team have returned, including two players in forward William Lee and guard Nick Norton who ranked among the top freshmen in Conference USA a season ago and conference tournament MVP Robert Brown. Reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Chris Cokley anchors a deep and experienced bench. And with Brown being the Blazers’ lone senior, they could be at the top of this list in 2016-17 as well.
2. Valparaiso: The Crusaders narrowly missed out on an upset back in March, falling by just three points to four-seed Maryland. Vashil Fernandez receiving his fourth season of eligibility means that head coach Bryce Drew can call upon one of the top front court tandems around, pairing Fernandez with junior Alec Peters. Peters was a first team all-Horizon League selection last season, with Fernandez being the Defensive Player of the Year. In total ten of the eleven players who scored a point for Valparaiso last season are back, with guards Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker and wing E. Victor Nickerson among those contributors.
3. Stephen F. Austin: Brad Underwood’s first two seasons at SFA have produced consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and the Lumberjacks have enough experience and talent to push that streak to three. Five seniors led by reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup have seen a lot in their college careers, including a wild win over VCU in the 2014 NCAA tournament. A group that was good on both ends of the floor (they ranked fifth in defensive turnover percentage, too) and won 29 of their final 30 games a season ago should pick up right where they left off in March.
4. Belmont: Like the three teams ahead of them on this list Rick Byrd’s Bruins reached the NCAA tournament a season ago, where they ran into a tough matchup in Virginia’s pack line defense. However it should be noted that Belmont scored 67 points in that loss, a mark met or surpassed by Virginia opponents just four times in 2014-15. Four starters from that team are back in Nashville, led by the OVC’s best player in senior guard Craig Bradshaw and the nation’s field goal percentage champion Evan Bradds (68.8 percent). The Bruins are highly efficient offensively, and that could make life difficult for an opponent unfamiliar with their style/personnel.
5. Old Dominion: Jeff Jones’ Monarchs fell short of their goal of an NCAA tournament bid a season ago, but they didn’t sulk once in the Postseason NIT. Trey Freeman and company reached the semifinals of that event, and the postseason experience should serve this group well. Freeman’s one of the best players in Conference USA, and in total ODU welcomes back three starters and four of their top six scorers. East Carolina transfer Brandan Stith pairs up with leading rebounder Denzell Taylor to help ODU account for the loss of Jonathan Arledge and Richard Ross from their front court, and this is a group that can be dangerous in a one-and-done scenario.
6. UC Irvine: The prohibitive favorites in the Big West, Russell Turner’s Anteaters had eventual Elite Eight participant Louisville on the ropes back in March. UC Irvine fell by just two points on that day, and many of the key contributors from that team have returned for another run at the NCAA tournament. That includes experienced guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson, wing Dominque Dunning and a front court with some serious size led by 7-foot-6 junior Mamadou Ndiaye. While UC Irvine isn’t an explosive offensive team, their defense is what makes them such a tough matchup for team not used to their style and personnel.
7. Iona: There’s no denying the fact that Tim Cluess’ Gaels are going to score points. Last season Iona averaged 79.5 points per game, and from an adjusted tempo standpoint only 11 teams played faster. Iona does have to account for the loss of MAAC Player of the Year David Laury, but four of the team’s top five scorers from a season ago are back led by high-scoring guards A.J. English and Shadrac Casimir. The key for Iona, especially in the MAAC tournament where they’ve fallen to rival Manhattan in each of the last two title games, will be their commitment on the defensive end. As we saw with Eastern Washington in March, being able to score doesn’t mean much if you can’t get stops.
8. Evansville: The Purple Aces have one of the better inside/out combinations around in high-scoring guard D.J. Balentine and forward/center Egidijus Mockevicius, who combined to average 32.6 points per game in 2014-15. That tandem helped lead Marty Simmons’ team to the CIT championship, and with all five starters back expectations are high for the Purple Aces. They’re in position to challenge preseason Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State, and given their talent and experience should Evansville reach the NCAA tournament they can cause trouble.
9. Central Michigan: Keno Davis’ Chippewas won 23 games and a MAC West Division title last season with an offense that shot the ball well and took good care of it too. All five starters, led by guard Chris Fowler and forward John Simons, are back on campus which should allow them to hit the ground running in 2015-16. The key for this group will be to get better on the defensive end of the floor (MAC foes shot nearly 54 percent from two), as they ranked 11th in field goal percentage defense, seventh in three-point percentage defense and ninth in effective field goal percentage defense (conference games only).
10. Louisiana: The biggest reason for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ inclusion on this list is the fact that they’ve got a likely pro in Shawn Long in their front court. The 6-foot-11 senior is the preseason pick for Sun Belt Player of the Year, coming off of a junior campaign in which he averaged 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. All five starters are back for head coach Bob Marlin, and while the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t reach the NCAA tournament they did play in the CIT (losing to Evansville in the quarters) so there is some postseason experience to call upon.
Five others to keep in mind: Hofstra, Columbia, North Florida, Stony Brook, Pepperdine
Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the MAC.
The MAC enters the 2015-16 season with one clear favorite and a lot of teams fighting to form an identity. The two-division conference has some interesting candidates emerging from both sides of the equation, but one team stands out above the rest.
Central Michigan and head coach Keno Davis are coming off of a 23-win season and return all eight players who averaged at least 15 minutes a game last season, when the Chippewas made the NIT and won the West Division. Now the goal is the NCAA tournament as they have the pieces and experience to try to make a run. Led by MAC preseason player of the year favorite Chris Fowler at point guard, all eight of Central Michigan’s returning players can hit 3-pointers and they can space the floor in any lineup.
After a .500 finish in the MAC in 2014-15, Akron comes in as a major player thanks to the return of four starters and a solid backup guard in Antino Jackson. Senior center Pat Forsythe is a load to handle at 6-foot-11 and the Zips will ride his post touches and double-figure scoring as far as it can take them. Akron is coming off of a 21-14 season and the key could be the return of guard Noah Robotham, who tore his ACL in February.
Kent State checks in right behind Akron in the East Division thanks to the return of its three frontcourt starters and All-MAC junior power forward Jimmy Hall. The 6-foot-8 Hall is joined in the starting group by Chris Ortiz and Khaliq Spencer while Maine transfer Xavier Powell and redshirt guard Kellon Thomas, a former starter, could become the new starting perimeter tandem.
Similar to the Flashes in backstory is second-place in the West Division: Western Michigan. The Broncos lost some experienced guards but get back potential All-MAC forward Connar Tava for his senior season along with wing Tucker Haymond and 6-foot-10 sophomore Drake LaMont. With the addition of 7-foot recruit Seth Dugan and talented guard Bryce Moore, the Broncos could be a team that could make a surprise run.
Trailing Western Michigan in the West Division is Toledo, who has to replace the dynamic senior trio of double-figure scorers that are gone. Senior center Nathan Boothe returns and he’s joined by junior guard Jonathan Williams, so two double-figure scorers remain, but from there it will be interesting to see who takes over at point guard for the Rockets.
Things were looking very positive for Buffalo this summer, even with the loss of head coach Bobby Hurley to Arizona State. But then new head coach Nate Oats had to deal with the dismissal of MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss, which leaves the Bulls with a huge hole. Talent is still around, especially on the perimeter, where senior Jarryn Skeete and versatile sophomore Lamonte Bearden are back. But can the program withstand the loss of Hurley and the talent he took with to the Aztecs?
One team to keep tabs on is Miami (Ohio), as the RedHawks return four starters and six scholarship seniors, led by potential all-league selection Eric Washington. Miami is looking for its first winning record since 2009, but they have the potential talent of a postseason team. Northern Illinois has trended upward since head coach Mark Montgomery took over and the Huskies hope that three returning starters and three top rotation players gives them a winning record. Seniors Travon Baker and Darrell Bowie have both started a ton of games while junior Aaric Armstead has All-MAC potential.
It’s hard to say how Ball State will look but the addition of Youngstown State transfer Ryan Weber, graduate transfer center Nate Wells and the return of guard Jeremie Tyler will certainly help. MAC Freshman of the Year Sean Sellers also returns and he’s a threat to hit shots from all over the floor. Ohio has some talent in potential All-MAC center Antonio Campbell, but the Bobcats have to rely a lot on transfers for big production as former Houston point guard Jaaron Simmons and former Michigan State forward Kenny Kaminski earn primary roles.
Questions marks also fill the lineup of Rob Murphy’s Eastern Michigan squad. Junior guard Raven Lee is an All-MAC talent, but he’s the only returning starter to a team that will ask a lot of role players and recruits. Bowling Green brings back a starting backcourt, but loses a player to the NBA in Richaun Holmes. With a new head coach in Michael Huger and a five-man recruiting class, there are a lot of people acclimating to new roles in Division I basketball.
Favorite: “When you return that much of your team like Central Michigan did, it’s hard to argue with the success they already had with 23 wins and the NIT appearance. Fowler and Simons are such a solid one-two punch.”
Sleeper: “Miami has a core of seniors that really wants to win and Eric Washington is a solid playmaker at guard. I could see them having a good season.”
Star to watch: “Chris Fowler is the ultimate leader and winner. He makes everyone else on Central Michigan better.”
PRESEASON MAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chris Fowler, Central Michigan
Central Michigan enters the 2015-16 season as the most complete returning team in the MAC and Fowler is the engine that makes them go. An experienced guard with over 1,000 career points and loads of assists, the 6-foot-1 senior averaged 16.2 points and 6.1 assists per game last season while he helped lead the Chippewas to 23 wins and a NIT appearance.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-MAC TEAM:
Eric Washington, Miami (Ohio): If Fowler is the MAC’s top lead guard, then Washington is right behind him. The 5-foot-10 senior put up 14.2 points and 5.5 assists a game last season.
Jimmy Hall, Kent State: Coming off of a breakthrough sophomore season, the 6-foot-8 Hall will look to somehow improve on 15.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 53 percent shooting.
Raven Lee, Eastern Michigan: A scoring guard coming off of a big sophomore season, the 6-foot-3 guard averaged 16.7 points per game and was a second-team All-MAC selection last season.
John Simons, Central Michigan: The talented running mate of Chris Fowler, Simons is a lethal shooter, hitting 91 treys last season at a 45 percent clip. Averaging 12.3 points and 6.8 boards as a junior, the 6-foot-8 forward could be in line for a big senior season.