Associated Press

Mid-majors capable of wrecking some brackets

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It never fails.

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.

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Old Dominion’s Trey Freeman (AP Photo)

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

Swider scores 26, No. 17 Villanova routs MTSU 98-69

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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Cole Swider scored a career-high 26 points with six 3-pointers, and No. 17 Villanova routed Middle Tennessee 98-69 on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

Collin Gillespie added 16 points and hit four 3s, Justin Moore finished with 15 points and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 11 rebounds to help the Wildcats (3-1) win their second straight following a 25-point loss at No. 10 Ohio State.

Villanova never trailed, led by 35, shot 57% and finished with a season-best 18 3-pointers. Eleven of them came during a first-half barrage that pushed its lead well into the 20s. Swider hit his fifth 3 from the corner shortly before the buzzer to put the Wildcats up 53-28 at halftime.

Saddiq Bey then took the lead to 30 with a 3-pointer two minutes into the second half.

Donovan Sims scored 18 points and C.J. Jones had 16 for the Blue Raiders (3-2). Leading scorer Antonio Green, averaging 23.5 points going into the game, finished with four points on 1-of-7 shooting while dealing with foul trouble.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: The Wildcats are tough to beat during in-season holiday tournaments, winning six of them in a row, and that 3-point touch got them off to a strong start toward No. 7. Gillespie, in his second game without the mask that protected his broken nose, got plenty of clear looks at the basket.

Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders had no answer for Villanova’s long-range shooting and couldn’t really get their 1-2 punch of Green and Jones started. Jones averages 20 points, but by the time he reached double figures, Middle Tennessee was already trailing by 30.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Plays the Tulane-Mississippi State winner on Friday in one semifinal.

Middle Tennessee: Faces the Tulane-Mississippi State loser on Friday in a consolation game.

Bacot, Anthony lead No. 5 UNC past Elon 75-61

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Those newcomers at No. 5 North Carolina were playing like freshmen — and, really, the upperclassmen were too — during yet another sluggish start.

The big men took it upon themselves to demand the ball — and dominate down low.

Armando Bacot had season highs of 22 points and 14 rebounds, Garrison Brooks added 14 points and the slow-starting Tar Heels beat Elon 75-61 on Wednesday night.

Bacot said coach Roy Williams “talked to me and Garrison and was like, `We need to dominate in the paint.”

“So we just told all the guards to get the ball and feed us,” Bacot added.

As a result, fellow freshman Cole Anthony flirted with North Carolina’s first triple-double in 19 years. He finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and a season-high eight assists for North Carolina (4-0), which hasn’t had a player with a triple-double since Brendan Haywood and Jason Capel each did it 10 days apart in December 2000.

And yet, in a sign of how high Anthony’s ceiling is, Williams called it a bad night for his star guard, who was 4 of 14 from the field with four turnovers.

“I’ve seen some really good players, and he’s got a chance to be one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. “But I also know when good players stink and that was him about half the game.”

The Tar Heels were 30 1/2-point favorites who a year ago beat Elon on the road by 49 points. They trailed at halftime for the second time this season before opening the second half with a Bacot-led 21-5 run that pushed the lead into double figures, and wound up outrebounding Elon 56-25.

Marcus Sheffield scored 19 points for the Phoenix (2-3), who lost their third straight — all to power-conference schools — while shooting 28% in the second half. Hunter Woods added 18 and his 3-pointer with 2 1/2 minutes left pulled Elon to 68-61. Bacot — who had 18 points in the second half — followed with two buckets to re-establish the Tar Heels’ double-figure lead.

BIG PICTURE

Elon: The Phoenix looked nothing like a team still chasing its first Division I victory of the season. Elon led 33-32 at halftime despite missing 13 of its final 15 shots of the first half — many of them wide-open looks — and the signature highlight might have been Sheffield’s posterizing, one-handed dunk on Justin Pierce midway through the half. Plenty of encouraging things in this one for first-year coach Mike Schrage — a former member of Mike Krzyzewski’s staff at Duke who was quite comfortable in the Smith Center’s visitors’ locker room.

“The first 20 minutes, we’ll take, but I thought the start of the second half, they really imposed their will,” Schrage said. “I thought we got worn down trying to fight them.”

North Carolina: The Tar Heels’ youth and inexperience was evident early in this one — Williams, a noted time-out hoarder, burned one 2 minutes, 9 seconds in after a particularly sloppy turnover. (“Earliest one in my history, I’m sure,” he quipped. “Doesn’t have a lot of competition.”) But they flipped the switch at halftime and took over early in the second half with their freshman big man leading the way, then made enough plays to ride out the victory.

BACOT BITS

This was by far Bacot’s best night of his young career. He set scoring and rebounding highs for the second straight game after finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds against Gardner-Webb last Friday night. He also had three blocks, his first game with more than one.

KEY STATS

With Bacot and Brooks underneath, North Carolina scored 46 points in the paint to just 16 for Elon. That helped the Tar Heels overcome 16% shooting from 3-point range — their worst at the Smith Center since Louisville held them to 14% in January.

UP NEXT

Elon: Plays host to Manhattan on Saturday.

North Carolina: Faces Alabama on Nov. 27 in its Battle 4 Atlantis opener in Paradise Island, Bahamas.

No. 2 Louisville rallies past USC Upstate 76-50

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville’s latest rout was anything but routine.

The No. 2 Cardinals trailed in the second half for the first time this season against a determined USC Upstate squad that challenged them longer than expected. That scare got Louisville’s attention, and its response was fast and furious.

Ryan McMahon made consecutive 3-pointers and Dwayne Sutton and Darius Perry had one each during a second-half surge that rallied Louisville past USC Upstate 76-50 Wednesday night.

Trailing the determined Spartans 43-40 with 14:07 remaining, Sutton’s 3 tied it before McMahon added one after a huge block of Josh Aldrich’s layup attempt. McMahon and Perry followed again from long range, and the Cardinals (5-0) turned up the intensity on both ends for a 24-5 burst.

They outscored Upstate 36-7 to close the game, capped by the second of two dunks from freshman guard David Johnson in his collegiate debut following a summer shoulder injury.

“They are going to go up against a team that isn’t in awe and play as well as they can for periods of 10 minutes,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “Tonight was not as tough as a moment we will find ourselves in the next month or two, but it is good for a team to figure it out.”

Jordan Nwora had two 3s among his season-high 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting. The Cardinals finished 51% from the field and have shot above 50% in each game this season.

McMahon scored 15 points on five 3-pointers, his last ones helping Louisville avoid a huge upset. The Cardinals were 9 of 21 from behind the arc, including 5 of 9 after halftime. Sutton grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds and scored nine points.

“It shows the power of the 3-point shot in college basketball,” added Mack, whose team tied a season high with 22 assists. “It can keep you in any game.”

The Cardinals owned the smaller Spartans in just about every statistic as expected: They held Upstate to 33% shooting with a 40-22 gap in rebounding with a 36-10 scoring advantage in the paint.

Blowouts have been the norm for the Spartans, who entered losing by an average margin of nearly 21 points. That included Monday’s 31-point loss at Akron, which seemed forgotten as they stayed within reach and even led.

“We played 30 minutes of the best basketball we’ve played all year,” second-year coach Dave Dickerson said. “But their size and athleticism and the fact they have one of the best players in the country as well, it’s hard for us to contend with that. They wore us down.”

Bryson Mozone’s 14 points on four 3s led Upstate (1-5), which was 9 of 24 from long range.

FULL STRENGTH

Johnson and 6-foot-11 junior forward Malik Williams finally got on the court for Louisville after missing time with injuries. They combined for seven points and four rebounds, all big in helping the Cardinals pull away.

“It felt great, been itching to get out there and finally got to do it,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to get the win.”

There was one scary moment as Williams, who returned from September foot surgery, landed hard and awkwardly following a flagrant-1 foul by Mozone. He got up gingerly but shook it off and made 1 of 2 free throws.

“I wasn’t really scared,” Williams said. “I just put my foot back in place and get right back to it. I’m good. I’m here to stay.”

BIG PICTURE

USC Upstate: The Spartans stayed close thanks to perimeter shooting and defense that forced the Cardinals into off-balance attempts. They just didn’t have enough height to battle on the glass and were no match once the Cardinals found their shot and intensity.

Louisville: The Cardinals led for much of the game despite appearing out of sync when Upstate kept making baskets. Their failure to contain Mozone could have cost them, but they also started making 3s to thwart the upset. The returns of Williams and Johnson from injuries helped in a comeback they didn’t expect and should help team depth.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The near-upset shouldn’t cost Louisville much in the rankings.

UP NEXT

USC Upstate returns home Saturday to host Youngstown State, which Louisville beat 78-55 on Nov. 10.

Louisville hosts Akron on Sunday in the last of its five-game homestand.

No. 16 Memphis beats Little Rock 68-58 as Wiseman watches

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis players said they were unaware before Wednesday night’s game that star freshman James Wiseman had been suspended 12 games by the NCAA.

There was another culprit for the No. 16 Tigers’ poor early play — a lack of respect for Arkansas-Little Rock — before Memphis escaped with a 68-58 win.

Precious Achiuwa had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and DJ Jeffries added 15 points — all in the first half — providing a spark for the lackadaisical Tigers (4-1).

The game was played only hours after the NCAA ruled Wiseman, the Tigers 7-foot-1 freshman and last season’s top recruit, ineligible for the next 11 games — he’d already sat out one — for receiving impermissible benefits from Memphis coach Penny Hardaway. Hardaway provide the family with $11,500 to help with moving expenses from Nashville to Memphis two years ago, before Hardaway became the Tigers’ coach. After moving to Memphis, Wiseman played for East High, where Hardaway coached.

The NCAA considered Hardaway a university booster because he donated $1 million to the university in 2008.

Wiseman watched the game from the bench.

“We were definitely glad to find out a number. We had been waiting on that,” Hardaway said.

Jeffries and Achiuwa both said they were unaware of the NCAA ruling.

“I haven’t actually looked at my phone in like four hours,” Achiuwa said, Jeffries nodding in agreement.

Hardaway said he didn’t talk about the situation with his team.

“It is what it is right now,” he said. “It has taken on a life of its own. I’m sure they will see it later.”

Hardaway attributed the slow start to the team’s disregard for the Trojans.

“I kind of got the feeling of how the locker room was before the game that these kids were taking Little Rock for granted,” Hardaway said. “There wasn’t the same energy.”

Markquis Nowell led the Trojans (3-2) with 16 points, while Ben Coupet Jr. added 12 points. Ruot Monyyong had 12 points and nine rebounds and Kamani Johnson finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Nowell also had 10 turnovers, representative of the sloppy play throughout the game.

“We had our chances,” Little Rock coach Darrell Walker said. “You think about it, Kamani at the rim 13 times and he misses 10 layups and doesn’t get fouled. There’s nothing the coach can do about that. Markquis turns the ball over 10 times. I told him they weren’t going to let him score all those points tonight. I told him he had to be a facilitator and a decoy.”

Memphis missed its first eight shots and by the midway point of the first half, the Tigers (4-1) were 3 of 13 from the field and had missed all five of its 3-pointers while committing eight turnovers.

The Tigers were unable to overcome the anemic start until less than five minutes left in the half, with Jeffries providing the spark with 15 points helping Memphis take a 28-23 lead at the break.

Little Rock was within 55-53 with about five minutes left, but Memphis outscored the Trojans 13-5 the rest of the way as the Trojans gave way to the Tigers depth.

“I don’t have all the weapons that Penny has,” Walker said. “He has a bunch of weapons, even coming off the bench. … Right now, I don’t. I got a couple of freshmen and some guys hurt. My deck is not full, but I’m not making excuses.

“Penny’s deck is not full either.”

BIG PICTURE

Little Rock: After jumping to an early 9-0 lead, the Trojans defense played well enough to cause problems for Memphis. Little Rock stayed close, but the visitors struggled from the foul line, going 13 of 24.

Memphis: Memphis was a mess to start the game, missing its first eight shots, some of them way off the mark. Four turnovers added to the early misery. After taking the lead late in the first half, the Tigers never relinquished the advantage in the second half, although Little Rock kept the game close.

UP NEXT

Little Rock: Travels to North Carolina State on Saturday

Memphis: Hosts Ole Miss on Saturday.

Memphis could not have handled the James Wiseman situation more poorly

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As much as I want to wave my fists in the air, pound on my keyboard and scream about how unfair it is that James Wiseman is the person in this scenario that has to serve a 12-game suspension, the unfortunate truth here is that Memphis played this out about as poorly as humanly possible.

Memphis probably never should have played James Wiseman in the first place. And as much as bleeding hearts like myself enjoyed watching the Tigers relentlessly troll the NCAA, they certainly should not have antagonized an organization that has proven that they are vindictive and unafraid of levying heavy-handed punishments. They definitely should not have messed with the bull if they weren’t ready for the horns.

But let’s back this up for a second.

Best that I can tell, there are only two reasons that the NCAA exists:

1. To oversee the tournaments that determine the national champion in every sport at every level. This, they are really good at, even if it took them four decades to realize the RPI was a joke.

2. To enforce amateurism and ensure that no one is breaking their bylaws. This, they are not so good at because, unlike law enforcement, the NCAA does not actually have any subpoena power. They can’t force anyone to talk, and as long as the paper trail is hidden well and no one is caught on an FBI wiretap talking about paying for players with strong-ass offers, it’s hard for NCAA investigators to do their job well.

The way the NCAA gets schools to comply and the people involved in these investigations to cooperate and tell the truth is to threaten them with the fire of 1,000 suns if they get caught doing anything else. If coaches get caught in a lie, the punishment far outweighs the crime. Bruce Pearl was banned from the coaching for three years because he lied about bringing a recruit to a barbecue at his house, a fairly minor violation. The same can be said for schools. If they do something like – oh, I don’t know – opt to play a player that they have been told by the NCAA is “likely ineligible,” then you have to be prepared to put every resource at your disposal behind fighting what you know is coming.

Memphis picked a fight with the NCAA. As soon as they did that, as soon as they willfully put James Wiseman on the floor at FedEx Forum against South Carolina State, they should have known they would never be able to put Pandora back in her box.

They should have known that this was going to put a bullseye on their back. They should have known that, as Sports Illustrated has reported, “a major infractions case targeting Memphis is now likely.” They should have known that those three games legitimately – and, by the rulebook, rightfully – put the future of the program and that of head coach Penny Hardaway in jeopardy.

None of what’s coming was worth it for wins over two teams no one cares about and a loss to Oregon.

It probably would not have been worth it for a full 30-something games of James Wiseman, but at least that would be understandable. I would not have put all of that on the line for a chance at living out the season the program has been anticipating since Penny replaced Tubby Smith, but I would at least see what the plan was. Memories cannot be vacated, and with public sentiment supporting the end of amateurism, maybe they could fight this thing in court long enough that it would no longer be a violation.

Oh, and the sideshow would have been incredible.

You think Zion Williamson’s shoe moved the needle?

Imagine what a full season of a potential No. 1 pick going to the war with the NCAA would have done.

But that’s not the way it played out for Memphis.

They waved the white flag last week.

On Wednesday, the NCAA ruled that Wiseman will have to serve the final 11 games of his 12 game suspension. So the Tigers may have cost themselves their best chance at getting to the NCAA tournament and they still have the NCAA coming after them.

And the complicating factor here is that this was an NCAA violation. No one is arguing that. Penny, who at the time was a Memphis booster and alum, paid $11,500 to Wiseman’s mother for the family to relocate from a ritzy private school in Nashville to a public high school in Memphis. At the same time, Wiseman stopped playing with Brad Beal Elite and started playing for Team Penny. All of this happened nine months before Penny was hired to be the Memphis head coach and around the same time that some of the most powerful voices in Memphis media started calling for Penny to replace Tubby.

This was always going to be thoroughly investigated by the NCAA.

Thinking otherwise was just foolish.

The honest-to-god truth here is that the only victim is Wiseman himself. He has been failed by every adult in this situation.

Penny should have known better than to pay Wiseman’s mother to get him to move to Memphis to play for his teams.

Memphis administrators should have known better than to allow him to step on the court when the NCAA had the goods.

Both Penny and the University should have been better prepared for what was coming knowing that this payment had happened; and if the University didn’t know this payment happened, they should have.

The NCAA should be above vindictive punishments that solely target a kid that had little, if anything, to do with this. He didn’t make the payments. He didn’t accept the payments. It wasn’t his decision whether or not to play, and if it was, Memphis never should have let an 18-year old make that decision.

One of the biggest failings of NCAA bylaws is their absolute inability to punish people that actually break the rules. Penny isn’t suspended. Wiseman’s mom isn’t suspended. No one in the athletic department is suspended.

No, the person being punished is the kid who was 16 when his mom accepted money from a man who was deemed a booster in 2008.