It’s been said many times that junior forward Brandon Ashley was the missing piece for Arizona last season, with the versatile forward suffering a foot injury in early February that resulted in a premature end to his sophomore campaign. Friday night Ashley played in his first regular season game since the injury, and he put together a very good performance in leading the second-ranked Wildcats to a 78-55 win over Mount St. Mary’s.
Ashley scored a game-high 21 points, shooting 9-for-10 from the field, while also grabbing six rebounds to lead the way for Sean Miller’s squad. Ashley was one of three Wildcats to score in double figures, with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scoring 15 off the bench and junior center Kaleb Tarczewski adding ten points to go along with ten rebounds.
Ashley scored 12 of his 21 points in the first half, making all six of his field goal attempts as the Mountaineers struggled to find an answer for him despite starting 6-foot-11 forward Kristijan Kranija and 7-foot center Taylor Danaher in an attempt to counter the Wildcats’ front court size.
As a team Arizona made 66.7% of its two-point attempts in the first half, and their ability to find looks around the basket carried over into the second stanza as well (76.5% 2PT).
If there’s anything to take note of from an improvement standpoint it would be Arizona’s shooting from the perimeter and the foul, as the Wildcats made just four of their sixteen three-point attempts and shot 12-for-25 from the foul line. Those areas were both issues Arizona had to deal with last season, and they’re areas that will have to be addressed this season as well.
Also of note is the fact that six players played between 21 (Hollis-Jefferson) and 28 (Ashley, Tarczewski, T.J. McConnell and Gabe York) minutes, with Elliott Pitts playing 17 and Parker Jackson-Cartwright 11. Miller discussed his team’s depth last week, stating that the Wildcats aren’t as deep as many forecasted them being before practices began.
How Miller manages the rotation will be something to watch as Arizona gets deeper into the season, with the Maui Invitational less than two weeks away. The most important takeaway from Friday’s win is that Ashley looked ready to go, not missing a beat as he scored a career-high 21 points.
For 18 weeks last season Mount St. Mary’s carried a losing record. However, the Mountaineers picked up momentum beginning in March with four straight wins, three of which came in the Northeast Conference Tournament.
On March 11, Mount St. Mary’s ran away with an 88-71 win against top-seeded Robert Morris, dashing the Colonials NCAA tournament hopes for the second consecutive season.
A week later, one day after St. Patrick’s Day, the Mountaineers’ luck ran out, as Albany ended their season with a 71-64 victory in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament. On the same night, Robert Morris head coach Andrew Toole had a postseason game of his own, as the Colonials went into Carnesecca Arena and defeated St. John’s, 89-79, in the first round of the NIT.
Despite the postseason success and a 72-37 (42-11 NEC) record over the past three seasons, Robert Morris hasn’t appeared in an NCAA tournament since 2010 when it nearly upset No. 2 seeded Villanova.
Toole has maintained the success of the program, never finishing lower than third in the conference during his tenure as head coach. There’s an established tradition at Robert Morris with 11 regular season conference titles, but bittersweet success is what is driving Robert Morris during the first few weeks of practice.
“It’s something that pushes us and motivates us,” Toole told NBCSports.com. “We keep saying that if we continually get back to that spot you’ll eventually get over the hump. It’s not easy to get back into those tournament championship games.”
This year more than others there is uncertainty around the league. Many of the top players have graduated, including Robert Morris guard Karvel Anderson, who was named NEC Player of the Year in 2013-2014. Mount St. Mary’s graduated three 1,000 career scorers. Wagner is without the conference’s three-time defensive player of the year, Kenneth Ortiz and Bryant forward Alex Francis, a two-time first team selection, is also gone.
“There is a lot of unknowns,” Toole added. “You look at that teams that return the most, a lot of people are choosing those teams toward the top of the league because they have more proven entities than some of the other groups.”
Central Connecticut State has four starters back, including a healthy Kyle Vinales. St. Francis (NY) returns six of its top nine scorers, including first-team all-conference forward Jalen Cannon. However, both those teams committed the most turnovers in the league last season. St. Francis (PA) has the same starting five as last year, but is this the year for the Red Flash to end a 23-year tournament drought?
Robert Morris, like Bryant, Wagner and Mount St. Mary’s has its personnel losses to overcome, however, each of those teams have the pieces to be in the conversation come March.
By the end of the season, the Colonials were down to just eight scholarship players. Two of those players — Anderson and starting point guard Anthony Myers-Pate — exhausted their eligibility. Fortunately for Toole, all six of those returning players logged 15 or more minutes, headlined by wing Lucky Jones, who averaged 13.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in an all-NEC second team junior season.
The 6-foot-6 Jones has been a stapel in the Colonials lineup, starting 66 of 70 games in the past two seasons. He’s also a reliable big-game player, going for 25 points, nine boards and five assists in a NIT win over the Johnnies in March. The previous year, he scored a team-high 15 points in the monumental win over Kentucky.
“It’s huge [having Lucky],” Toole said. “He’s a guy that is so versatile and can do so many things on the floor, whether it’s rebounding, scoring or defending. He can give us a little bit of confidence as we go into games because we know what we can get from Lucky and we can build from there. Having him on the roster and him as a senior is invaluable to us.”
Will arguably the conference’s top player, six key contributors and a competitive non-conference schedule (North Carolina, Georgetown, Toledo) be enough to push the Colonials over that hump and into the field of 68? In a conference as unpredictable as the Northeast has been over the last few seasons it’s too early to tell. But one thing is for certain, Toole will have his guys ready.
“There are so many teams that can compete for a championship,” Toole said. “If you aren’t prepared or playing with the urgency you need to play with, I think that can beat you. That goes across the board, from top to bottom, in the conference. Like I said, there’s a lot of unknowns. Each and every game is going to be a challenge, as it has been every other year we’ve been in the NEC.
“It’s a long, long process and we can’t take any shortcuts as we build toward conference play because everyone is going to be at their best, everyone is going to try to win those league games and I think everyone believes they have chance.”
GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 12 NC State vs. No. 12 Xavier, 9:10 p.m. (truTV)
Xavier is heading to a familiar arena after spending years as a member of the Atlantic 10. Hopefully that serves as an advantage for the Musketeers. They go head-to-head with NC State, a team that was able to sneak into the field with an ACC Tournament win over struggling Syracuse (and some added lobbying from Coach K). The Wolfpack are dangerous with one of the field’s most dynamic scorers in T.J. Warren, the ACC Player of the Year.
Xavier will counter with a gifted scorer of their own in lead guard Semaj Christon, Warren’s prep school teammate at Brewster Academy (N.H.). He forms a one-two punch with Matt Stainbrook, who will be back from a knee injury.
The winner of this game gets a favorable Round of 64 matchup. Saint Louis, the No. 5 seed in the Midwest, is a talented team, which won 19 straight games at one point this season and cracked the top 10. However, the Billikens have dropped four of their last five games.
OTHER GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 16 Albany vs. No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s, 6:40 p.m. (truTV)
The No. 4 seed from the American East Tournament and the No. 4 seed from the Northeast Conference Tournament meet in the First Four to start the NCAA tournament.
Julian Norfleet scores 17.5 points per game for the Mountaineers. Rashad Whack, the team’s leading scorer, averaged 23.0 points per game in the NEC Tournament. The Great Danes have Australian native Peter Hooley, averaging 15.7 points per game. He’s one of four Albany players to average double figures in points.
The winner of this one has the pleasure of facing the top overall seed Florida, which hasn’t lost since Dec. 2.
WHO’S GETTING UPSET? No. 6 Georgia State vs. No. 3 Clemson, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW
1) Robert Morris in the NIT … as an No. 8 seed. The Colonials will look to pull off the first round upset for the second year in a row against top-seeded St. John’s.
2) Florida Gulf Coast needs to upset No. 1 Florida State in the NIT first round. Then No. 4 Georgetown needs to top West Virginia. If that happens, the NIT will get a Georgetown-Dunk City rematch. I’d watch that.
3) Belmont and Green Bay, two very good mid-major teams that slipped up in their respective conference tournaments, go head-to-head in the NIT first round.
4) VMI’s high-power offense travels to New York to take on Canisius’ top scorer Billy Baron. That game headlines the CIT slate of games on Tuesday.
5) Indiana State is a pretty good mid-major team with a solid senior point guard in Jake Odum. How does he handle the Arkansas pressure?
No. 8 Robert Morris vs. No. 1 St. John’s, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)