Introducing Cinderella

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Introducing Cinderella: Liberty heading back to the NCAA tournament

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Lipscomb tripped Liberty up in the two teams’ regular-season finale, costing the Flames an outright Atlantic Sun championship. Liberty wouldn’t let the Bisons cost them anything else.

The Flames dominated Lipscomb on Sunday to earn an ASun conference tournament championship and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament with a 73-57 victory on their home court. It’ll be the second-straight trip to the Big Dance for coach Ritchie McKay and the Flames, who shot 53.8 percent from the field and 40.7 percent on 27 attempts from 3-point range against Lipscomb.

LEAGUE: Atlantic Sun

COACH: Ritchie McKay

RECORD: 30-4, 13-3 ASun

RELATED: Bubble Watch | Bracketology | Conference Tournaments

METRICS:

  • NET: 70
  • KENPOM: 79
  • TORVIK: 77

PROJECTED SEED: The Flames have put together an impressive season, and they’ll likely get rewarded with a 13-seed for their work.

WHO DID THEY BEAT?: Akron is the only KenPom top-100 victory Liberty has on its resume, but it does also have a Power 5 notch with a win over Vanderbilt.

WHY LIBERTY CAN WIN AN NCAA TOURNAMENT GAME

Maybe the best reason to believe the Flames can win an NCAA tournament game is because we’ve seen them do it recently. Liberty, as a 12-seed, defeated fifth-seeded Mississippi State in the first round last year before losing to Virginia Tech in the second round. Much of the nucleus of that team returned this season, making Liberty a formidable opponent for the high-major it is likely to draw given a defense that is punishing to shooters and excellent on the glass along with an offense that is excellent at converting inside the 3-point arc.

WHY LIBERTY WON’T WIN AN NCAA TOURNAMENT GAME

Last year’s Flames had more experience against high-major opponents, with four games against the biggest programs in the country. This year’s time faced just one, a Vanderbilt team that won three SEC games. The only top-225 KenPom opponent Liberty has played in 2020 is North Florida (167). This team isn’t quite as battled tested as last year’s group. If they play an athletic team that wants to push the pace, that could be trouble, too, for a team that ranks 352nd out of 353 nationally in tempo.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?

Caleb Homesley had one of the best first-round performances of the NCAA tournament last year, going for 30 points on 10 of 16 shooting (including 5 of 11 from deep) to upset the Bulldogs. As a senior this season, Homesley is averaging 15.3 points,  5.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and 37 percent from 3-point range.

AUTOMATIC BID OUTLOOK

Liberty’s fate, like most double-digit seeds, will likely be tied to the matchup the Flames get from the committee on Selection Sunday. They’re veteran, experienced and have had a wildly successful season. They’ll be entering the tournament with confidence and the knowledge that they can win a game in this format. If they aren’t able to dictate pace, however, the talent gap could be exposed quickly.

Introducing Cinderella: Bradley going to its second-straight NCAA tournament

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Bradley hasn’t been anywhere near being the favorite in the Missouri Valley Conference the last two seasons, but that hasn’t stopped the Braves from securing the conference’s automatic bid in back-to-back years.

The fourth-seeded Braves won the MVC tourney Saturday with an 80-66 triumph over Valparaiso in St. Louis to go to its second-straight NCAA tournament under coach Brad Wardle.

Darrell Brown scored 21 points while Elijah Childs had 17,  Ja’Shone Henry 16 and Nate Kennell 14 for Bradley, which shot 48.3 percent from the field while making 8 of 17 (47.1 percent) from 3-point range.

LEAGUE: Missouri Valley Conference

COACH: Brian Wardle

RECORD: 23-11, 11-7 MVC

RELATED: Bubble Watch | Bracketology | Conference Tournaments

METRICS:

  • NET: 106
  • KENPOM: 113
  • TORVIK: 109

PROJECTED SEED: Bradley’s resume isn’t overly strong, but the relative strength of the Missouri Valley Conference should be enough to keep them off the 16- or 15-line with a No. 14 seed.

WHO DID THEY BEAT?: The Braves’ best win – and their only over a high-major opponent – was against Kansas State, which finished last in the Big 12, in November. They beat Missouri State twice and Indiana State once for three top-120 KenPom wins during conference play.

WHY BRADLEY CAN WIN AN NCAA TOURNAMENT GAME

The Missouri Valley Conference isn’t what it once was when Wichita State and Creighton were counted among its members, but it’s among the strongest one-bid leagues in the country if Northern Iowa, by far the league’s best team, is left out after losing in the conference tournament quarterfinals. Bradley has played against solid competition all winter. And while the Braves don’t launch 3s at a prolific rate, they are excellent at making the ones they do take, ranking 32nd nationally with a 36.8 percent success rate on 3s. Six-foot-6 senior Nate Kennell has shot 44 percent on 186 attempts from distance. He could be a difference-maker in a single-game setting. Darrell Brown and Elijah Childs are proven scorers as well with NCAA tournament experience.

WHY BRADLEY WON’T WIN AN NCAA TOURNAMENT GAME

The Braves’ defense is going to be their biggest issue. They’re solid enough – teams have an eFG% of 46.3 – but they give up a ton of 3-point attempts, don’t generate any turnovers and are just OK on the defensive glass. A skilled and/or physical offense is going to cause serious problems for Bradley.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?

Bradley is back in the NCAA tournament for the second-straight season after two surprising runs through the MVC conference championship. Last year, they knocked off reigning Final Four participant and top-seeded Loyola Chicago in the semifinals before outlasting Northern Iowa in the title game to earn the automatic bid as the No. 5 seed. If you’re a Michigan State fan – or bettor or aggressive bracket-picker – you might remember Elijah Childs and Darrell Brown scoring a combined 36 points to stay within shouting distance of the Final Four-bound Spartans in the first round. Both are back for a second NCAA tourney with the Braves.

AUTOMATIC BID OUTLOOK

Bradley could find itself as a trendy upset pick – depending on its matchup – given the fact it has NCAA tournament experience, talented offensive players and the ability to connect from distance at a high clip. Veteran players and strong 3-point shooting is a formidable underdog combination. Still, though, the defense is going to be the Achilles heel, and if a more talented and athletic high-major program can push tempo, Bradley is probably going to find itself in trouble.

Introducing Cinderella: Winthrop wins the Big South

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Hampton, which finished 8-10 in the Big South and is ranked outside the top-300 on KenPom, looked like it might pull a monster upset in the Big South final to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016. The Pirates led Winthrop, the conference tournament’s two seed, for the league’s automatic bid by 15 before the midway point of the first half.

It didn’t hold up, though.

The Eagles dominated the second half to put Hampton away and claim a 76-68 victory and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2017 with the Big South’s automatic bid. Winthrop shot 66 percent from the field in the second half to pull away. Freshman DJ Burns scored 16 points in 18 minutes for Winthrop.

LEAGUE: Big South

COACH: Pat Kelsey

RECORD: 24-10, 15-3 Big South

RELATED: Bubble Watch | Bracketology | Conference Tournaments

METRICS:

  • NET: 146
  • KENPOM: 138
  • TORVIK: 160

PROJECTED SEED: Winthrop won 14-straight from December into February, but lost three games – Radford, Gardner Webb and Hampton – over the last month of the season, and the Eagles are likely destined for a 16 seed.

WHO DID THEY BEAT?: There’s no question that Winthrop’s best win of the season came in November when they went on the road to defeat St. Mary’s 61-59 in Moraga. They played East Tennessee State, Duke, TCU and Furman tough, but to defeats as well.

WHY WINTHROP CAN WIN AN NCAA TOURNAMENT GAME

Certainly the competition in the Big South isn’t going to intimidate any of the teams Winthrop is likely to be matched up against in the NCAA tournament, but the Eagles did rip through 14-straight games this winter. If nothing else, that’s a sign of being able to consistently play at a high level. The Eagles play at a fast pace, and if they get the right matchup, they might be able to dictate tempo enough to create some problems for a high-major with their ability to score near the basket.

WHY WINTHROP WON’T WIN AN NCAA TOURNAMENT GAME

It’s been a long time since Winthrop played a fellow NCAA tournament team, and the competition they’re likely to face – probably a top-two seed – is going to be a major upgrade from the programs they’ve been going up against for the better part of three months. The Eagles also aren’t elite any any area, which makes pulling an upset against a more talented team all the more difficult. The biggest issue, though, is their defense, which ranks 250th nationally in effective field goal percentage.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?

Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey first came into your life as Skip Prosser’s point guard at Xavier for three seasons in the late 1990s that resulted in two NCAA tournaments for the Musketeers. After assistant stops at Xavier and Wake Forest, he took over Winthrop in 2013 and has turned in four 20-win seasons with this being the second NCAA tournament appearance for his Eagles. The 44-year-old could be a name that gets mentioned for mid-major gigs during this go-round of the coaching carousel after getting Winthrop another automatic bid. He reportedly was close to replacing John Brannen at Northern Kentucky last spring.

AUTOMATIC BID OUTLOOK

Like any team facing a No. 1 or No. 2, Winthrop is going to have a heck of a time trying to get into the second round. With just one senior in the rotation, though, this could be a great dress rehearsal for 2020-21 when the Eagles theoretically could be even better with added experience. If it’s going to happen for Winthrop this season, though, the Eagles probably will want a contrasting style matchup, forcing walk-it-up teams like Kansas, Baylor, San Diego State or Dayton to push the pace, even if that might expose the talent gap.

Introducing Cinderella: Georgia State is dancing again

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Ron Hunter is headed back to the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years.

Georgia State shook off a slow start, taking over in the second half and holding on for a 73-64 win over UT-Arlington.

CONFERENCE: Sun Belt

COACH: Ron Hunter

RECORD: 23-9, 13-5 (1st Sun Belt)

RATINGS

  • KENPOM: 114
  • NET: 121

PROJECTED SEED: The Panthers were a No. 14 seed in the most recent bracket projection from NBC Sports, and considering that came after the majority of the automatic bids had been determined, it should not change all that much.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Georgia State’s star is D’Marcus Simonds. He’s a super athletic, 6-foot-3 guard with NBA potential and the ability to take over games. He had 29 points against Mississippi last season and 24 in the NCAA tournament loss to Cincinnati. He;s terrific, and one of five Panthers to average double-figures this season.

Oh, and he also called his shot in the Sun Belt tournament:

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: Georgia State actually has a pretty strong resume for a mid-major automatic bid. They won at Alabama (59) earlier this year, they beat East Tennessee State at home and they have a pair of Q2 road wins in league play — Georgia Southern (125) and Texas State (134). They also beat Saint Bonaventure and Georgia on neutral courts.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: My favorite thing about this Georgia State team is that they just do not care one iota about rebounding. They rank outside the top 300 in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Part of it is by design and part of it is that they play a lot of zone and that’s notoriously hard to rebound out of. Ron Hunter has said that he believes rebounding is the most overrated stat in college basketball, which is baffling, totally outside the box and has worked for him. To each their own.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: Ron Hunter produced the single-most memorable sideline moment in the history of college basketball. Hunter was forced to sit on a stool while coaching his team in the 2015 NCAA tournament because he tore his achilles celebrating GSU’s win in the Sun Belt tournament, which resulted in this:

Introducing Cinderella: Yale’s going to upset someone again this season

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Miye Oni is Yale’s superstar, and with 14 minutes left in the second half of the Ivy League title game, Oni left the floor having picked up his fourth foul.

That, however, did not matter.

The Elis were immediately go on a 20-4 run, opening up a 73-59 lead that eventually turned into an 97-85 win.

The star of the afternoon for Yale was point guard Alex Copeland. He finished with 25 points and seven assists, and while he did not outplay Harvard’s Bryce Aiken — Aiken went for 38 points on 11-for-21 shooting — he did make every big play and every big shot in the second half, picking up the slack for Oni.

This is the second NCAA tournament that Yale has reached in the last four seasons, and to put that into context, they had not been to the NCAA tournament since 1962 prior to 2016’s trip. The job that James Jones has done turning that New Haven school into a Ivy powerhouse should not be overlooked.

CONFERENCE: Ivy League

COACH: James Jones

RECORD: 22-7, 10-4 Ivy (1st)

RATINGS

  • KENPOM: 84
  • NET: 86

PROJECTED SEED: There’s a chance that Yale can sneak up to the No. 12 seed line, although I do think that is is more likely they end up being a No. 13 seed when the brackets are released.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Miye Oni is this team’s star. He’s a 6-foot-6 combo-guard with a 7-foot- wingspan that is going to be an NBA draft pick. He struggled on Saturday, but he absolutely took over down the stretch in the semifinals as Yale landed a come-from-behind win over Princeton.

but he’s far from alone. Copeland, as we saw Saturday, can take over a game. Jordan Bruner is the kind of skilled four that makes Yale so hard to guard — he averages 10.2 pints, 8.4 boards, 3.0 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steals as a 6-foot-9 athlete. Blake Reynolds can play. Trey Phills is really good. Azar Swaim is a guy that can pop off for 15-20 points from time to time. This is a good, talented team that will be a threat to beat whoever they draw in the first round.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: Yale has a handful of wins that sound better than they look this season. They beat Miami on a neutral court. They won at Cal. They beat Iona and Albany at home, and also took Memphis to overtime in Memphis. The problem is that every one of those teams is in something of a down year this year, which is why we’re looking at Yale as more of a 13 seed than a borderline at-large like Lipscomb, Belmont and the like.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: The strength of this Yale team is on the offensive side of the ball. They were far and away the best offensive team in a pretty good Ivy League. They have guys that will play in the NBA. They can shoot it from three and they have multiple players that can create in the halfcourt. They’re just a good, well-coached team.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: Yale went out and beat Baylor in the 2016 NCAA tournament, which is memorable for two reasons: 1. Makai Mason going for 31 points and becoming an Ivy League legend. 2. That game led to this March moment:

FINAL THOUGHT: James Jones is a heckuva coach. Yale had no basketball history to speak of when he took over in 2000, and while it took a while for him to get here, he has this program absolutely rolling. The Bulldogs are heading to their second NCAA tournament in four seasons, and if it wasn’t for some unfortunate injuries that they had dealt with in recent seasons, that number might have been higher. Some high-academic school at a bigger level — Tulane? George Washington? Cal? — would be smart to give him a long, long look.

Introducing Cinderella: UC Irvine rolls to Big West title

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One year after losing to Cal State Fullerton in the championship game of the Big West tournament, UC Irvine avenged the defeat in dominant fashion Saturday night in Anaheim. Max Hazzard and Collin Welp scored 23 points apiece to lead the Anteaters to the 92-64 victory, with UC Irvine shooting nearly 62% from the field and 10-for-14 from beyond the arc.

Russell Turner’s team, which earned the program’s second-ever NCAA tournament bid, was the class of the Big West all season long and the Anteaters backed that up this weekend. After beating UC Riverside in the quarterfinals UC Irvine avenged its lone conference loss, beating Long Beach State by eight to advance to the title game.

The last time UC Irvine gave Louisville all it wanted before losing by two in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. While the 2018-19 version doesn’t have a 7-foot-7 center patrolling the paint, UC Irvine still defends at a high level and is a bit better offensively as well. Whichever team draws the Anteaters better be ready; this is a team that’s more than capable of advancing next week.

CONFERENCE: Big West

COACH: Russell Turner

RECORD: 30-5 (15-1 Big West)

RATINGS:

  • KENPOM: 81
  • NET: 73

PROJECTED SEED: The Anteaters will most likely be a 13-seed, although with their profile a 12-seed may be possible depending on which teams the selection committee tabs for the final at-large spots.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: 6-foot-10 senior forward Jonathan Galloway (8.6 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.1 bpg in conference games) was not only a first team All-Big West selection, but the conference’s best defender as well. And three other Anteaters received all-conference honors, with junior guard Max Hazzard (12.2 ppg, 2.5 apg) named second team All-Big West and junior guard Evan Leonard (11.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.3 apg) and junior forward Tommy Rutherford (7.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg) receiving honorable mention nods. And Collin Welp is an effective option off the bench, as he averaged 9.1 points per game in Big West play.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: UC Irvine went 2-3 in Quadrant 1/2 games with the wins coming on the road against Saint Mary’s (Quadrant 1) and Texas A&M (Quadrant 2). Saint Mary’s is one of two automatic qualifiers that the Anteaters picked up wins over, with the other being Big West champion Montana. UC Irvine went 17-1 in Quadrant 4 games, with the lone blemish being an 80-70 home loss to Long Beach State on January 16.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: As noted above this is one of the better defensive teams in the country, as they rank fourth in field goal percentage defense (37.9%), first in two-point percentage defense (40.2%) and 50th in adjusted defensive efficiency (96.5, per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers). Offensively, the Anteaters are averaging 72.3 points per game while shooting 45.5% from the field and 35.3% from three. Those aren’t numbers that jump off the page, but they’ve been good enough for a team that’s won 30 games.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: As noted above four years ago UC Irvine nearly upset Louisville, and that team had four players listed at 6-foot-10 or taller including 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye. Also, the Anteaters have been a fixture in the Big West title game in recent years. UC Irvine has appeared in five of the last seven finals, winning two.