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)
Seeding?: In Dave Ommen’s most recent bracket, Robert Morris was projected as a No. 16 seed. RMC was the No. 1 seed in the NEC tournament. MSM finished fourth in the conference. They will be a No. 16 seed, and could end up in the play-in game.
Names you need to know: Rashad Whack (17.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Julian Norfleet (17.5 ppg, 5.5 apg), Sam Prescott (10.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg)
Stats you need to know: Mount St. Mary’s is 33rd nationally in tempo, according to KenPom. Their best attribute defensively is their ability to force turnovers, and while they are quite literally as good as anyone in the country at taking away the three-pointer (only one team gives up a lower percentage of their points from beyond the arc), a lot of that is because they simply cannot defend around the rim. No team in the country allows more points from two-point range, and they rank 337th nationally in opponent’s two-point field goal percentage.
Tendencies: Christian is a product of the Shaka Smart coaching tree, and as a result, the Mountaineers play a similar style. They want to press. They want to force turnovers. They gamble a lot, which is why they give up so many layups. They want an uptempo, hectic game. They shoot a lot of threes. It’s Havoc, only not as good and without the nickname.
Big wins, bad losses: According to KenPom, the Mount’s two best wins on the season came back in November, when they knocked off American and Bucknell, who are both top 150 teams. Bad losses? Well, they’ve lost to three of the nation’s 25 worst teams. Do those count?
How’d they get here?: The Mountaineers won the Northeast Conference tournament in impressive fashion, knocking off No. 2 seed Wagner in the semis before going into Pittsburgh to beat No. 1 seed league champ Robert Morris.
Outlook: Mount St. Mary’s is going to have a tough time winning a game in the NCAA tournament unless that happen to end up in the play-in game. They finished the regular season below .500. They finished tied for fourth place in the NEC. They got hot and the right time, winning the NEC tournament in part because of a ridiculous shooting display early on in the title game, and that’s why they are dancing.
How do I know you?: Jim Phelan, who coached for 49 years at the Mount, is one of 14 NCAA coaches with more than 800 career wins. He’s the winningest coach that isn’t currently in the Hall of Fame.
Former Butler wing Andrew Smeathers transfers to Mount St. Mary’s
Just days before the start of the season, 6-foot-6 junior wing Andrew Smeathers announced his decision to leave Butler at the end of the fall semester. Having played an average of just four minutes per game in two seasons at the school, Smeathers made the decision based upon his desire for more playing time.
On Thursday it was first reported by Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports that Smeathers has decided to transfer to Mount St. Mary’s. Smeathers averaged 1.5 points per game as a Bulldog, with his most productive outing being a 17-point night in a win over Oakland City during his freshman season. If looking solely at games against Division I competition, Smeathers scored eight points in a loss at Detroit in January 2012.
Smeathers joins a program that will lose three perimeter players at the end of the current season in Julian Norfleet, Sam Prescott and Rashad Whack, with those three players being the Mountaineers’ leading scorers. Norfleet currently ranks third in the Northeast Conference in scoring with an average of 18.6 points per game and second in assists (5.4 apg) with Whack’s 14.6 ppg ranking ninth. Prescott’s currently averaging 9.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per contest.
Smeathers joins a five-member recruiting class that includes guard Lamont Robinson and four front court players. Normally a transfer at the end of the fall semester would result in a player having to sit out until the end of the fall semester in the next academic year. But with Georgetown center Joshua Smith receiving a waiver to play immediately after he played in six games at UCLA last season, it may be worthwhile to apply for a waiver especially when considering the fact that Smeathers hasn’t played at all this season.
If that’s the path Mount St. Mary’s head coach Jamion Christian and his staff consider pursuing, it will be an interesting case to keep an eye on.
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.
It was one of the more memorable and heartbreaking games of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
Robert Morris, coached then by Mike Rice, had No. 2 seed Villanova on the ropes that Thursday afternoon in Providence leading for much of the game only to have the Wildcats eke out a 73-70 win in overtime. Color commentator Bill Raftery summed up the game perfectly following the gut-wrenching loss that left dynamite freshman point guard Karon Abraham motionless on the floor: “They only lost on the scoreboard, Vern.”
Much of the appeal of the NCAA Tournament is watching schools seldom heard of win a game and advance to the next round, and it looked like No. 15 seed Robert Morris was on their way to doing just that. Despite the deflating loss, the Colonials were becoming a household name in the NEC and mid-major basketball.
Fast forward three years and the program is under new leadership with Andy Toole at the helm. While Robert Morris hasn’t been back to the NCAA Tournament since 2010, they’ve been to the postseason and won games two of the past three seasons. Toole would tell you there was already momentum building even before Rice took over as head coach in 2008. It began with Mark Schmidt, the current head coach at St. Bonaventure, the prior season as they went 26-8 and nearly upset Syracuse in the NIT. Up until this point, Robert Morris was buried in obscurity. They hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in nearly 20 years and many didn’t know much about the school and basketball program.
Toole told NBCSports.com by phone: “We were hitting wall after wall after wall in terms of people not knowing what Robert Morris and our basketball team was all about at that point in time. After going to the NCAA Tournament and almost beating Villanova, we started getting call backs; they had a point of reference after seeing us in the NCAA Tournament back to back years. That game legitimized us.”
While the Villanova game may have legitimized Robert Morris, it was their NIT win at home over Kentucky last season that placed them at the forefront of the college basketball world.
It was the perfect storm for Andy Toole and his program. On the heels of being upset in the NEC tournament by Mount St. Mary’s, Robert Morris was paired with Kentucky — the 2012 NCAA Champions — in the first round of the NIT. Since Rupp Arena was one of the eight venues for the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was forced to travel to Moon Township to play Robert Morris at Robert Morris. The game was played on a Tuesday night, which allowed for a nice buffer period in between Selection Sunday and the Thursday games. After their win over Kentucky, the talk all day Wednesday wasn’t about the NCAA Tournament, but rather the NIT. Again, it was the perfect storm.
“This year with the win against Kentucky, that put us on center stage for a few days because of some incredible timing and incredible circumstances. This was another perfect opportunity for people to learn about the program.”
It wasn’t long ago that Robert Morris was struggling to just have conversations with top recruits that they were targeting, but now that conversation is much easier to come by. Toole explained while the recent success and exposure doesn’t always lead to landing top-flight recruits, they are now in contention for them. “It doesn’t guarantee that we’re always going to get the recruits. We still have to do our due diligence to make sure we are targeting the right kids for our school and program, but we are at a starting point that is so much different than it was six years ago.
The exposure Robert Morris has generated on a national level since 2009 has helped to elevate the program to another level and, predictably, that is paying great dividends. Specifically, the geographical footprint that Toole and his staff are now recruiting from has vastly expanded.
“We are recruiting from a much wider geographic area. We were in Florida recruiting and people recognized us. We were recruiting a kid from Kansas and people recognized us. We have a kid on this year’s team (Desjuan Newton) who played junior college in Arizona and is originally from Seattle and he knew about the [Kentucky] game.”
The key now is to sustain the momentum that has been building since 2009, which will be no easy task as the NEC has steadily improved as a league. “You see a lot of young staffs in the NEC who are trying to make names for themselves. They’re really getting out there and recruiting, and maybe not taking the same old thought process of, ‘Well, we’re just a Northeast Conference school, that kids not going to want to come here.’ That’s not the case. I think you see that across the board and why the programs are getting better and better.”
While Toole has continued the momentum his predecessors Schmidt and Rice began, he has yet to win the NEC and advance to the NCAA Tournament. Nearly defeating Villanova in 2010 and beating Kentucky in 2013 may have been steps one and two. The next step is getting back to the NCAA Tournament and winning a game, something Robert Morris hasn’t accomplished in 30 years.