Tag Archives: Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball

Xavier Basketball: 5 Storylines for the Musketeers in 2013-14

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Despite not making the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2005, the future looks bright for the Xavier Musketeers. The 2013-14 season will usher in Xavier’s transition to the Big East, the addition of Western Michigan transfer Matt Stainbrook to the starting lineup and the development of reigning Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year Semaj Christon.

With head coach Chris Mack at the helm, the Muskies will look to improve upon their 17-14 record and seventh-place finish in the A-10 last season. Xavier is in its second year of rebuilding the program.

The Musketeers will rely on a lot of youth next season with five freshmen and two sophomores on scholarship. Xavier can expect a lot of competition for playing time as well as depth on the bench—something the Musketeers lacked last season—as it enters a new era in the Big East.

Semaj Christon earned Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year honors last season.  (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Semaj Christon earned Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year honors last season.
(Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

1. Playing in the Big East

In the midst of conference re-alignment, the Big East became a revolving door as the “Catholic 7” of Georgetown, Villanova, DePaul, Marquette, St. John’s, Providence and Seton Hall separated from the rest of their conference; the Catholic 7 then added Xavier and Butler from the Atlantic 10 in addition to Creighton from the Missouri Valley Conference to form a 10-team conference.

Despite sending five teams to the tournament last year, the A-10 has historically been regarded as a second-tier conference full of mid-majors. Xavier has achieved sustained success in the postseason that has exceeded the expectations for most mid-majors.

Xavier has 11 NCAA tournament berths in the past 13 seasons; the Musketeers have had three Sweet 16 and two Elite Eight appearances in that stretch. The Muskies will get the opportunity to take their program to the next level in the Big East.

The Big East is still one of the better basketball conferences, regardless if many fans add the qualifier “new” in front of it.

Butler has proven that it’s a program capable of making deep runs in the tournament.

Georgetown returns the majority of its roster from a Hoya team that had a 25-7 record and tied for a Big East Championship last year.

Creighton’s senior forward Doug McDermott will be one of the preseason National Player of the Year favorites after averaging more than 23 points and nearly eight rebounds per game last season.

Plus, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects for five Big East teams to make next season’s tournament in his first 2013-14 bracket.

The Big East Tournament will be held in Madison Square Garden, and ESPN New York reporter Kieran Darcy reported that the Big East agreed to a 12-year deal with Fox Sports.

The combination of star players, tournament-bound teams, major venues and multi-year television deals means that Xavier will have more national exposure than ever before.

2. Playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis

On Thanksgiving weekend, the Musketeers will play in the Bahamas in the Battle 4 Atlantis along with Kansas, Iowa, Tennessee, USC, Vilanova, UTEP and Wake Forest.

While the matchups have not been announced for the tournament, Xavier has the opportunity to play a potential Top Five team in Kansas, who recently added the class of 2013’s No. 1 recruit, Andrew Wiggins, and a fringe Top 25 team in Iowa, who returns its top five scorers from last year’s Hawkeye squad that lost in the NIT Championship and finished the season with a 25-13 record.

It could also face USC and the Trojans’ new head coach Andy Enfield, who led No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 last year, and Tennessee, who CBS College Basketball Insider Gary Parrish said should be considered a Top 25 team after the announcement of Antonio Barton’s transfer from Memphis.

The Musketeers could potentially face challenging competition in the Bahamas, which would help the strength of their nonconference schedule, and the tournament can only help Xavier’s case to make the NCAA tournament in March.

Xavier has not faced a Top 10 team in its nonconference schedule since 2008, and playing multiple ranked teams in consecutive days would prepare the Muskies for the challenges that lie ahead in the Big East.

3. The Development of Semaj Christon

Xavier’s point guard won A-10 Freshman of the Year honors last season after averaging 15.2 points and more than four assists per game.

Christon suffered his share of growing pains; he turned the ball over 10 times against VCU, made just one of his nine shots before fouling out in a four-point loss to Tennessee and he was 3-of-11 from the field against Wake Forest, to name a few of his less-than-stellar performances.

However, the Cincinnati native was one of the bright spots on an inexperienced team that lost its top five scorers from the 2011-12 season. Christon led Xavier in points, assists, steals and free throws attempted last year.

His best statistical game of the season was a 20-point, seven-assist and seven-rebound effort in an overtime win against No. 16 Saint Louis as Xavier made one final push for an at-large bid to the tournament.

Xavier coach Chris Mack tweeted this spring that Christon will be one of the team’s captains as a sophomore, so he will have a larger leadership role next season.

Just as the point guard will have an opportunity to improve in the locker room, he has room to get better on the court as well. Christon made just 25 percent of his 28 three-point shots and connected on only 67 percent of his free throws. While he averaged nearly five assists per game, he turned the ball over almost four times per game.

Xavier’s success in the inaugural season of the “new” Big East starts and ends with Christon.

If he can make strides upon the promising foundation he laid in his freshman year, he could become one of the premier point guards in the country and even be in the discussion for Big East Player of the Year.

4. The Fab 5

Xavier coach Chris Mack put together an impressive five-man freshman class for next season that has flown under the radar.

Myles Davis and Jalen Reynolds were both given a grade of 92 by ESPN.

Davis and Reynolds were supposed to play last season for the Musketeers, but the NCAA denied the eligibility of both players, according to former CBS Sports college basketball writer Jeff Goodman. Goodman wrote that both players paid for their first year of school at Xavier University and could not practice with the team.

Reynolds is a 6’9″ forward who was originally a 2011 commit before he attended prep school at Brewster Academy in New Jersey for one year. He will be two years older than most freshmen.

Davis is a 6’2″ guard from Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass.

In addition, Xavier will have Brandon Randolph, a point guard out of Inglewood, Calif. who is ranked No. 86 on ESPN’s 2013 Top 100 players list.

Kamall Richards is the fourth member of Xavier’s freshman class. The 6’6″ small forward is a 3-star recruit, according to Rivals.com.

The Musketeers’ most recent commitment was from Aleksandar Vezenkov, a 6’8″ Bulgarian forward who has experience playing on the Bulgarian junior national team and the Greek professional team Aris, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s Shannon Russell.

With half of Xavier’s 2012 recruiting class, which was ranked 14th in the country by ESPN, beginning their college careers next season, in addition to the three 2013 commits, the Musketeers’ freshman class has a bright future.

5. The Impact of Transfer Players

After sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules, Western Michigan transfer Matt Stainbrook, a junior center, will provide the Musketeers a big body in the middle. At 6’9″ and 275 pounds, Stainbrook averaged more than 11 points and nearly seven rebounds per game as a sophomore for the Broncos.

In two seasons at Western Michigan, Stainbrook registered 10 double-doubles and scored a career-high 32 points against South Dakota State as a sophomore.

The native of Bay Village, Ohio also had the chance to prove himself against some of the country’s top teams. He made seven of his eight shots against No. 19 Illinois in his freshman season in a 16-point effort. In his sophomore year, Stainbrook scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds against No. 5 Duke.

With the loss of Travis Taylor (11.9 points and 9.0 rebounds per game) and Jeff Robinson (6.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game) due to graduation, Stainbrook will have the opportunity to start immediately in Xavier’s frontcourt.

Similarly to Christon, Stainbrook was selected as a team captain by his teammates for the upcoming season, so he has earned his teammates’ respect despite not playing in a Xavier uniform yet in his college career.

On May 17, Xavier added a second transfer, former Indiana guard Remy Abell, to its roster. While the sophomore will have to sit out the 2013-14 season, he will be able to practice with the Musketeers and make his teammates even better.

Abell will bring the experience of practicing with two All-Americans, Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, to Xavier, so he has seen firsthand what it takes to play at the highest level in college basketball.

The future of the new Big East

The Big East announced this week that the conference’s basketball-only schools, which have been referred to as the Catholic 7—DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova—will leave on June 30, 2013.

While early reports indicated that these universities would create their own conference under a new name, the Catholic 7 will retain the “Big East” label in addition to playing its conference tournament at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, New York.

As the new Big East looks to expand to a 10 or 12-team conference, the universities have three options in which they can add new members—only Catholic schools, only private schools or open the conference to public universities.

The initial rumors are that the new Big East will acquire Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10 Conference as well as Creighton from the Missouri Valley Conference to expand to a 10-team conference for the 2013-14 season.

The new Big East would like to reach at least 12 teams by 2014. Dayton and Saint Louis are the front-runners for the final spots for the new conference. Richmond and VCU have also been given consideration for admission to the new Big East.

Here is a look at the potential additions to the new Big East:

Butler Bulldogs

Conference: Atlantic 10

Record: 24-7 (11-5)—T-3rd in the A-10

Record over the past decade: 241-96 (.715 winning percentage)

Regular season conference championships: 18

Conference tournament championships: 7

NCAA Tournament History:

Appearances: 11—1962, ’97-98, 2000-01, ’07-11

Record: 18-11

Sweet Sixteen: 5—1962, 2003, ’07, ’10-11

Elite Eight: 2—’10-11

Final Four: 2—’10-11

National Championship Runner-Up: ’10-11

Butler has been one of the best teams in the NCAA Tournament in the past five seasons, with two national championship game appearances and another Sweet Sixteen run. Led by Brad Stevens, who at only 36 years old is one of the best young coaches in college basketball, Butler has skyrocketed from a middle-of-the-road team in the Horizon League to the front of the national spotlight. Butler University has the size of a mid-major but its recent accomplishments have earned the men’s basketball program the prestige of an established power 6 conference team.

Xavier Musketeers

Conference: Atlantic 10

Record: 17-13 (9-7)—T-6th in the A-10

Record over the past decade: 236-105 (.692 winning percentage)

Regular season conference championships: 17

Conference tournament championships: 10

NCAA Tournament History:

Appearances: 23

Record: 21-23

Sweet Sixteen: 6—1990, 2004, ’08-12

Elite Eight: 2—2004, ‘08

Xavier is one of the best examples of a mid-major that has achieved sustained postseason success. The Musketeers have been a staple for the NCAA Tournament in the new millennium. Since the 2000-01 season, XU has only missed the tourney once, in 2005. The Muskies have made a name for themselves with five Sweet Sixteen appearances since 2004, including each of the past four seasons, and Elite Eight berths in ’04 and ’08. While a 17-12 record is a down year for Xavier’s standards, the Musketeers have defeated two ranked opponents in their past three games as they make a final push for the NCAA Tournament. Led by the probable Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year, point guard Semaj Christon, and an accomplished young coach in Chris Mack, the Xavier Musketeers have a bright future once their rebuilding process is complete.

Creighton Bluejays

Conference: Missouri Valley

Record: 27-7 (13-5)—1st in the MVC

Record over the past decade: 231-105 (.688 winning percentage)

Regular season conference championships: 15

Conference tournament championships: 12

NCAA Tournament History:

Appearances: 17

Record: 10-18

Sweet Sixteen: 3—1962, ’64, ‘74

While junior Doug McDermott has been the recipient of most of the media’s attention at Creighton, the Bluejays have long been successful before the school’s leading scorer ever stepped foot on campus. In the past decade, Creighton has failed to reach 20 wins only once and the Jays have finished no worse than fourth in the Missouri Valley standings during that time span.

Dayton Flyers

Conference: Atlantic 10

Record: 17-13 (7-9)—T-11th in the A-10

Record over the past decade: 209-120 (.635 winning percentage)

Conference tournament championships: 2

NCAA Tournament History:

Appearances: 14

Record: 14-16

Sweet Sixteen: 6—1952, ’65-67, ’74, ‘84

Elite Eight: 2—1967, ‘84

Final Four: 1967

National Championship Runner-Up: 1967

Unfortunately for Dayton, its best seasons were before any of the current Flyers players were born. The Flyers have a respectable winning percentage in recent years but they lack banners and trophies to show for it. They were selected to the NCAA Tournament four times since the turn of the century but were eliminated in the first round on three occasions. Dayton also lacks the elusive Atlantic 10 regular season champion honor and the team has only won the A-10 Tournament twice. Regardless of Dayton’s lack of post-season accomplishments, the Flyers are a solid team year in and year out.

Saint Louis Billikens

Conference: Atlantic 10

Record: 24-6 (13-3)—1st in the A-10

Record over the past decade: 183-125 (.594 winning percentage)

Regular season conference championships: 6

Conference tournament championships: 1

NCAA Tournament History:

Appearances: 7

Record: 4-8

Sweet Sixteen: 2—1952, ‘57

Elite Eight: 1952

While SLU’s most accomplished seasons were in the 1950’s, the Billikens are on the rise. In 2011-12, Saint Louis won 26 games and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Billikens won the regular season A-10 title this year with a 13-3 conference record and they were ranked as high as 16th. Saint Louis Head Coach Jim Crews has led the team through the death of SLU’s former coach, Rick Majerus, and many analysts believe that the Billikens could be a sleeper in March.   

Virginia Commonwealth

Conference: Atlantic 10

Record: 24-7 (12-4)—2nd in the A-10

Record over the past decade: 222-92 (.707 winning percentage)

Regular season conference championships: 9

Conference tournament championships: 8

NCAA Tournament History:

Appearances: 11

Record: 11-11

Sweet Sixteen: 2011

Elite Eight: 2011

Final Four: 2011

Virginia Commonwealth is not new to the NCAA Tournament—the Rams participated in March Madness five seasons in a six year span in the early 1980’s. However, VCU then went dormant for nearly two decades before re-emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the postseason. The Rams knocked off Duke in ’07 then made a Final Four run in 2011, in which they lost to a fellow Cinderella team in Butler in the national semifinal. VCU’s move to the Atlantic 10 has paid off as Shaka Smart & Co. have proven themselves against stronger competition than they faced in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Richmond Spiders

Conference: Atlantic 10

Record: 18-13 (8-8)—T-9th in the A-10

Record over the past decade: 180-144 (.556 winning percentage)

Regular season conference championships: 5

Conference tournament championships: 6

NCAA Tournament History:

Appearances: 9

Record: 8-9

Sweet Sixteen: 2—1988, 2011

While Richmond has only one conference honor, 2011 A-10 Tournament champion, since 2001, the Spiders are known for their performances in March. In 1984, Richmond took down Charles Barkley and No. 5 seed Auburn. In 1988, UR defeated the defending national champion, Indiana, in the opening round and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen after beating Georgia Tech. Then in 1991, the Spiders became the first No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2 when they topped Syracuse. While Richmond hasn’t been able to sustain regular season success, the Spiders are deadly in the NCAA Tournament. 

When the new Big East evaluates its options for the conference, it will look for private universities with both a history and recent track record of success in college basketball. There are no bad choices in the group—all of the teams have had some level of regular and postseason successes as well as most schools have trended upward in the past decade.

Assuming that the new Big East will only select private universities, it will likely admit Butler, Xavier and Creighton over the summer. Saint Louis is the next best team out of the private institutions. To make the Big East a 12-team conference, Dayton or Richmond would be the final school. Neither one is a bad choice. Dayton has gone further in the NCAA Tournament on more occasions. However, Richmond has more regular season and conference tournament championships; plus, the Spiders have more damage in March more recently than Dayton.

These additions should make the new Big East a stronger basketball conference in the long run than the America 12, which is the frontrunner for the schools left out of the new conference. Connecticut has won two men’s and three women’s basketball national championships in the past decade but the America 12 will lack the depth that the new Big East will have after 2014.

Big East

America 12

Butler

Central Florida

Creighton

Cincinnati

DePaul

Connecticut

Georgetown

East Carolina

Marquette

Houston

Providence

Memphis

Richmond/Dayton/VCU

Rutgers

Saint Louis

South Florida

Seton Hall

Southern Methodist

St. John’s

Temple

Villanova

Tulane

Xavier

Tulsa

Bracketology Report: Xavier Musketeers

Xavier Musketeers—(14-10, 7-4)—5th place in the Atlantic 10

Strength of schedule: 96

RPI: 98

BPI: 87

Good wins:

  • 62-47 vs. Butler
  • 57-52 vs. Temple
  • 70-63 vs. La Salle

Bad losses:

  • 56-55 vs. Wofford
  • 66-59 @ Wake Forest

Remaining schedule:

  • 2/20 @ Rhode Island
  • 2/23 vs. No. 24 VCU
  • 2/26 vs. No. 21 Memphis
  • 3/2 vs. Massachusetts
  • 3/6 vs. Saint Louis
  • 3/9 @ Butler

Xavier has made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last seven seasons and in 11 of the past 12 but the Musketeers are on pace to miss the Big Dance this year. XU Coach Chris Mack had a difficult challenge ahead of him for the 2012-13 season when senior guard Mark Lyons and sophomore forward Dez Wells left the team. Lyons and Mack disagreed about Lyons’ role on the team, which led to Lyons transferring to Arizona; Wells was expelled from Xavier University after allegedly committing sexual assault but he was never charged. XU Coach Mack had to replace all five starters from last year’s Musketeers team that made the Sweet Sixteen.

Led by freshman sensation Semaj Christon, Xavier has remained in the top third of the A-10 but the Muskies’ résumé needs some major improvement for XU to be chosen by the selection committee on March 17th. The highlight of Xavier’s non-conference schedule and overall résumé is a 15-point victory against Butler on Nov. 13. While XU has also defeated La Salle and Temple, who are fourth and seventh in the A-10, respectively, the Musketeers let too many winnable games slip out of their grasp. Xavier lost by three to Pacific, two to Vanderbilt in overtime, one to Wofford, four to Tennessee, six to Charlotte and two to Richmond.

Freshman point guard Semaj Christon has been one of the few bright spots for Xavier this season. (Image courtesy of www.bannersontheparkway.com)
Freshman point guard Semaj Christon has been one of the few bright spots for Xavier this season. (Image courtesy of http://www.bannersontheparkway.com)

While Xavier is certainly on the outside, looking in on the field of 68 teams selected for the NCAA Tournament, hope remains for the Musketeers. Three of Xavier’s final six games are against ranked opponents, in addition to a matchup against the A-10 leading Saint Louis Billikens. If the Musketeers can win three of those four games, or if they can win the A-10 Tournament, Xavier will be in the Big Dance.

Prediction: Xavier will defeat Rhode Island and Massachusetts but will lose to VCU, Memphis, Saint Louis and Butler. The Musketeers will be the No. 7 seed in the A-10 Tournament. XU will win its first round matchup but lose in the second round. Xavier’s 17-15 record will earn the Musketeers a No. 7 seed in the NIT.

College basketball stock report: 5 teams to buy, sell or hold

Illinois

SELL

The Fighting Illini started the season 12-0 and defeated No. 10 Gonzaga on the road by double digits. However, since Illinois’ victory over Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 16, John Groce’s squad is 3-5 and 2-4 in the Big Ten. The Illini lost to unranked Purdue, Wisconsin and Northwestern, which does not bode well since their schedule will only get tougher as the season progresses. They still have to play Michigan twice, Indiana and Michigan State for the first time, in addition to rematches against Minnesota and Ohio State.

Michigan State

BUY

It's a good time to be in East Lansing, Mich. as Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans sit atop the Big Ten standings with a 6-1 record. (Image courtesy of http://wkzo.com/news/articles/2012/sep/24/msu-basketball-coach-tom-izzo-guest-speaker-at-kalamazoo-benefit/)
It’s a good time to be in East Lansing, Mich. since Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans sit atop the Big Ten standings with a 6-1 record. (Image courtesy of http://wkzo.com/news/articles/2012/sep/24/msu-basketball-coach-tom-izzo-guest-speaker-at-kalamazoo-benefit/)

The Spartans were on the verge of dropping out of the AP Top 25 after three losses in the 2012 calendar year. Michigan State’s challenging non-conference schedule paid off; Tom Izzo’s squad is leading the Big Ten with a two game lead over Michigan and Indiana. Three of Michigan State’s Big Ten wins are by three points or fewer, which separates great teams from the good ones in March.

 Oregon

BUY

The Ducks sit alone at the top of the Pac-12 standings after defeating No. 24 UCLA last Saturday. Arizona and UCLA only appear once on Oregon’s schedule, which means there are no ranked opponents remaining on the Ducks’ schedule. Oregon is in the driver’s seat to win the Pac-12 now that the team’s biggest challenges are in the Ducks’ rearview mirror.

Wisconsin

HOLD

Bo Ryan’s Badgers are a very perplexing team. Wisconsin lost four of its first 10 games then rattled off seven consecutive wins, including victories over No. 12 Illinois and No. 2 Indiana. After defeating the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall, the Badgers dropped two games to Iowa and Michigan State by a total of six points. Wisconsin has the coach and the talent to finish in the top three in the Big Ten or the Badgers could end up sixth or seventh. They have been too inconsistent to determine how good they can be in college basketball’s toughest conference.

Xavier

BUY

The 2012-13 Musketeers are possibly one of the weakest Xavier teams in the past decade and most Atlantic 10 projections have Xavier as a middle-of-the-road team in the conference yet Semaj Christon & Co. have started to turn their season around in conference play. Don’t look now but Xavier is tied with Virginia Commonwealth for first place. The Muskies have pulled out close wins against Temple, St. Bonaventure and La Salle after losing four straight games in non-conference play. They don’t play VCU and Butler until late in the season, which means that Xavier has over a month to improve before it faces two of the A-10’s best teams.

The first college basketball stock report of 2013

Conference play is officially underway in most conferences, which means that it’s time to evaluate whether it’s time to buy, sell or hold stock in some of the country’s top college basketball teams.

BUY

Butler

Brad Stevens has the Butler Bulldogs looking up as they head into A-10 play. (Image courtesy of http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1446736-butlers-brad-stevens-the-most-job-secure-coach-in-college-basketball)
Brad Stevens has the Butler Bulldogs looking up as they head into A-10 play. (Image courtesy of http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1446736-butlers-brad-stevens-the-most-job-secure-coach-in-college-basketball)

The Bulldogs’ two losses came in the team’s first five games and since their loss to Illinois, who is currently ranked eleventh, Brad Stevens’ squad has rattled off nine straight victories, including a win over No. 1 Indiana. Butler is playing their trademark tough defense and the Bulldogs have wins over Marquette, North Carolina and Northwestern in addition to knocking off the Hoosiers. Butler is the favorite to win the A-10 and its stock can continue to rise with a good conference record.

VCU

The Rams suffered three early losses to Wichita State, who is likely the second best team in the Missouri Valley, Duke and Missouri. However, VCU rebounded and is 12-3 with favorable chances to win a wide open Atlantic 10.

Minnesota

The Golden Gophers started the season unranked but have won their way to the ninth spot in the rankings. Their lone loss was to Duke, which is certainly nothing to be ashamed of considering the Blue Devils’ success this season. Minnesota is on a nine game win streak and has won six consecutive games by double digits, with the latest being a 76-63 home win against No. 18 Michigan State.

Kansas State

In Bruce Weber’s first year as head coach of the Wildcats, Kansas State is off to an impressive 12-2 record. K-State lost to Michigan and Gonzaga early in the season but have put those behind them with wins over Florida and Oklahoma State. The Wildcats will be in the mix of teams competing for second place in the Big 12 behind Kansas.

Kentucky

UK was way overrated at No. 3 in the preseason but the Wildcats have had time to work out some of their kinks in their non-conference schedule. Ryan Harrow gives them a good option at point guard that they were missing early in the season. They lost to Duke and Louisville, two of the top four teams in the country, and Notre Dame in their first true road test. Many of the growing pains are out of the way and a top three finish in the SEC isn’t out of the question as the will compete with Florida and Missouri for the conference title.

SELL

Ohio State

Brandon Paul and the Fighting Illini handled their business against Ohio State and make basketball fans wonder how good the Buckeyes really are. (Image courtesy of http://www.toledoblade.com/Ohio-State/2013/01/05/No-11-Illinois-rebounds-with-home-win-over-No-8-Buckeyes-74-55.html)
Brandon Paul and the Fighting Illini handled their business against Ohio State and make basketball fans wonder how good the Buckeyes really are. (Image courtesy of http://www.toledoblade.com/Ohio-State/2013/01/05/No-11-Illinois-rebounds-with-home-win-over-No-8-Buckeyes-74-55.html)

The Buckeyes have faced three ranked teams-Duke, Kansas and Illinois-and lost all three games. With six ranked teams in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes will have to win big games, especially on the road, and they haven’t proven that they’re up to the challenge just yet.

Pittsburgh

The Panthers cracked the AP Top 25 with an appearance at No. 24 but it will be short-lived after losing to Cincinnati and Rutgers in their first two Big East games, which makes then tied for last place in the conference. Pittsburgh had two freshmen in the starting lineup, which could make for a slow start to conference play.

Cincinnati

Mick Cronin’s Bearcats reached as high as eighth in the rankings but Cincinnati lost to New Mexico and St. John’s in the team’s last three games. UC has a challenging next matchup when it hosts No. 21 Notre Dame on Monday.

Wisconsin

The Badgers entered the season in the AP Top 25 but fell quickly out of the polls after losses to Florida, Creighton, Virginia and Marquette. Wisconsin plays Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota and Ohio State in consecutive games in January, which bodes for a difficult month and a bad start to Big Ten play.

HOLD

Duke

The Blue Devils have passed every test that has been thrown at them this season but they can only move down in the rankings from the No. 1 spot. Duke will be expected to win the ACC but North Carolina State, North Carolina or Maryland all have the talent to upset the Blue Devils in conference play.

Arizona

Sean Miller’s Wildcats are the best team out West but San Diego State, Colorado and Utah’s close losses have shown that Arizona is vulnerable and it could suffer its first loss to a PAC-12 opponent this month.

Illinois

The Fighting Illini are a very difficult team to examine. They won by double digits against Butler and on the road against Gonzaga. Then Illinois lost to Missouri and Purdue in a three-game stretch, followed by a dominating win over Ohio State. Illinois is certainly a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten but their up and down play gives the impression that they will have their share of impressive wins and tough losses this season.

Oklahoma State

The Cowboys blew out North Carolina State early in the season but have lost consecutive games to No. 10 Gonzaga and No. 25 Kansas State, which means that Oklahoma State still has room for improvement in the remainder of the season.

Michigan

The country’s No. 2 team is off to a 15-0 start but it is only a matter of time until the Wolverines lose their first game. The Big Ten schedule for every team is a mine field–one bad step or slip up and Michigan can receive the first blemish on its 2012-13 campaign. However, the Wolverines are one of the best teams in the country and will give Indiana a run for its money to win the Big Ten.

Stay tuned for the next edition of Sports.Eat.Sleep.Repeat.!

Video Highlights: Miami (OH) v. UMass

The Massachusetts Minutement traveled to John D. Millett Hall in Oxford, Ohio on January 2, 2013 to play the Miami RedHawks in a non-conference matchup. Miami guard Will Sullivan failed to score on a last second layup attempt and UMass escaped with a narrow victory.

Chaz Williams' runner in the lane with 1:12 remaining in the second half proved to be the game-winning shot for UMass.
Chaz Williams’ runner in the lane with 1:12 remaining in the second half proved to be the game-winning shot for UMass.

Learning to appreciate success in college basketball

The intention of this article is not to bash Miami University or its men’s basketball program but instead to verbalize the process I went through of realizing the different levels of college basketball programs, how difficult it is to maintain national prominence and that success takes different forms for different schools.

Over the course of my childhood and teenage years, I have been very fortunate to see the college basketball programs that I support be incredibly successful.

I watched my first true love, the Xavier Musketeers, reach the Elite Eight in 2004 and 2008, along with Sweet Sixteen appearances in ’09, ’10 and ’12. For a mid-major program, Xavier’s 11 NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 12 years is a praiseworthy accomplishment. Southern Illinois, my dad’s alma mater, made the Big Dance every year from 2002 through 2007, which included two Sweet Sixteen appearances. Even though my allegiance to Indiana University is the shortest of these three schools, the Hoosiers have gone nowhere but up as a program since I decided to attend IU last spring. The Hoosiers made the Sweet Sixteen last March in a season in which they defeated three top five teams and Indiana is off to a 13-1 start this season.

While I realize how impressive it is for an A-10 school such as Xavier to make the NCAA Tournament nearly every year for over a decade, for Southern Illinois to rise to national prominence out of the Missouri Valley Conference and for Tom Crean to lead Indiana from six wins in 2008 to 27 in 2011 and a preseason number one rank in 2012, I have still taken these successes for granted. I have grown up cheering for college basketball programs that have hired excellent coaches, recruited elite players and cultivated winning environments.

On Wednesday night, I walked a mile in another program’s shoes—those of Miami (OH) University. The RedHawks hosted the Massachusetts Minutemen at John D. Millett Hall in Oxford, Ohio.

Millett Hall, an arena that seats 6,400 people for basketball games, opened in 1968 and for the most part, appears frozen in time in its inaugural year. The seats are a putrid green color, the court is surrounded by red carpet and the jumbotron has a delay of at least 30 seconds to update the current lineups on the floor when substitutions occur. Several “NCAA Second Round” banners hang from the ceiling along with an “NIT Final 8” banner commemorating the 1993 RedHawks team. That’s when it hit me—few schools can be perennial powers in college basketball and even fewer can sustain that success at the mid-major level. Playing in the Mid-American Conference means that Miami has to win its conference tournament or compile a season-long résumé impressive enough to earn an at-large bid from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee if it wants to be in the field of 68 teams that compete for a national championship.

John D. Millett Hall at Miami University is the home of RedHawks basketball.
John D. Millett Hall at Miami University is the home of RedHawks basketball.

While I laughed to myself at the thought of a team hanging banners for advancing to the Final 8 in the NIT or the second round of the NCAA Tournament, I began to realize how spoiled I’ve been to watched Xavier in the 21st Century, Southern Illinois in the early to mid-2000s and the revival of the Indiana Hoosiers. Since the new millennium, Miami has not reached the height of those other programs but it is nothing like those other institutions. Miami University is not known for its men’s basketball program. Only eight RedHawks have played in the NBA—most notably Ron Harper, who is a five-time NBA Champion, and Wally Szczerbiak. The school prides itself in its men’s hockey program that has made the NCAA Tournament in each of the past seven years, including two Frozen Four appearances. Most of Miami’s athletic focus is on hockey and the school welcomes any additional success in its other sports with open arms.

There are 347 Division I men’s college basketball programs competing for 68 spots in the annual NCAA Tournament. Schools need to have to right combination of coaches, players, funding and support from its fan base in order to have success. Miami is in the midst of developing its recipe to be a power in the MAC and to make the NCAA Tournament. With a first-year head coach and a starting lineup with four players 6’3” or shorter, the Miami RedHawks have different goals and expectations than the No. 5 Indiana Hoosiers that I am accustomed to watching. A winning season, a MAC Championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance would mean the world to the Miami RedHawks and there’s nothing wrong with any of those goals.

College basketball is arguably the most exciting sport to follow because of the ever-present David vs. Goliath matchups and the Cinderella stories every March that exist because smaller programs reach great heights—and if Miami puts together the right coaching staff and roster, one day Millett Hall could be home to an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight banner to hang alongside of its “1993 NIT Final 8” counterpart.

Stay tuned for the next edition of Sports.Eat.Sleep.Repeat.!

Postgame Video: Wofford’s 56-55 Win over Xavier

Wofford came back after being down 30-16 to beat Xavier in the final minute of the game at the Cintas Center on Saturday, December 22nd.

Wofford's ability to knock down three-point shots and free throws allowed the Terriers to come back after being down 14 points in the first half.
Wofford’s ability to knock down three-point shots and free throws allowed the Terriers to come back after being down 14 points in the first half.

An Open Letter to Chris Mack

Dear Coach Mack,

I have been very impressed with the Xavier University men’s basketball team during your three-year tenure at the school. The Musketeers have made the NCAA Tournament every year with you at the helm, which includes two Sweet Sixteen appearances. I give you credit where it is deserved–in your entire body of work as the head coach at Xavier since 2009. However, I question your coaching in Xavier’s 56-55 loss to Wofford.

The game was an opportunity for the team to prove themselves against a non-conference opponent and to boost its confidence after a disappointing loss to rival Cincinnati in the Crosstown Classic. Against the Terriers, your team came out strong in the first half with a 34-22 lead thanks to 15 points from forward Travis Taylor. While Taylor was in the forefront of the Xavier’s dominating first half performance, it was a team effort that allowed your team to be in the driver’s seat. Nine players saw the floor as you put different combinations of Musketeers out on the court but it was the starting five of Taylor, forward Isaiah Philmore, forward Justin Martin, guard Dee Davis and guard Semaj Christon that had the most success.

For some reason, in the second half, you largely abandoned your starting five by replacing Philmore and Martin with forward Erik Stenger and guard Brad Redford. Redford’s ideal role on the team is to be a spot-up three-point shooter. That has been clear since his senior year of high school when he averaged 36.7 points per game and his freshman season at Xavier when he knocked down 46.5 percent of his three-point attempts. Redford fulfilled his role when he hit two shots from behind the arc in the final 15 seconds to tie the game at 55. However, before those shots, he had played 24 minutes, missed all three of his shot attempts, grabbed one rebound and committed three fouls. If Brad Redford isn’t knocking down jumpers, then he is taking away minutes from capable rebounders such as Philmore, Martin and Jeff Robinson. Redford doesn’t add speed, spectacular ball handling ability or a lock-down defensive presence, so his second half minutes were extremely questionable. I give you credit for playing him in the team’s final offensive possessions. He deserved to be on the floor so that Xavier had a three-point scorer who could give the Muskies a chance to come from behind. However, if Redford didn’t play as much as he did in the second half, then Xavier may not have needed to hit a pair of threes in the final minute to have a chance to win; more minutes for Philmore and Martin could have translated to the team cruising to its eighth win of the season.

Chris Mack's questionable coaching decisions make him largely responsible for Xavier's one-point loss to Wofford. (Image courtesy of http://www.rantsports.com/ncaa-basketball/2012/10/01/juco-star-chris-thomas-back-on-the-market-after-decommitting-from-xavier/)
Chris Mack’s questionable coaching decisions make him largely responsible for Xavier’s one-point loss to Wofford. (Image courtesy of http://www.rantsports.com/ncaa-basketball/2012/10/01/juco-star-chris-thomas-back-on-the-market-after-decommitting-from-xavier/)

Xavier’s second half offense with Redford and Stenger on the floor left me scratching my head as I tried to figure out what was the team’s plan. There was lots of passing on the perimeter that rarely led to good looks. Too often a Musketeer would settle for a bad shot on offense, which is why the team only scored 21 points in the second half. Xavier has the Atlantic 10’s best NBA prospect, freshman Semaj Christon, yet not enough offensive plays were run through him. Christon, who stands at 6’3″ and weighs 180 lbs., has much greater size than former Xavier point guards Drew Lavender (5’7″ 153 lbs.) and Tu Holloway (6’0″ 190 lbs.). The Cincinnati native can drive to the rim at will and hold his own in the lane in ways that his predecessors couldn’t due to their height, so where were the calls for him to take over the game? When things were heading south for Xavier and Wofford came back after being down 30-16, the best option was to have Semaj Christon penetrate the lane. Once Christon exposed the Terriers defense, he could look to Taylor, who made six of his seven shot attempts in the first half. Taylor only had five second half points because Xavier stopped feeding him the ball even though he was on pace to have a career high in points scored.

Wofford taking the lead with 3:10 remaining in the game was the impetus to substitute Philmore, Martin and Robinson back in the game but it was too little too late. Xavier started playing a full-court press and showed a strong defensive intensity, especially from Christon, that had been absent for most of the day. It was that same constant pressure on defense that held Butler to only 47 points and a 36.5 shooting percentage in a statement win earlier in the season, so why is it not a staple for the Musketeers?

Coach Mack, I applaud your seamless transition from the Sean Miller era of the Xavier University men’s basketball program and your recruitment of talented players such as Semaj Christon. However, this year’s team is inexperienced and the Musketeers are going to need great coaching in order to reach their potential. A shooting percentage of 27.3 from behind the arc and eight missed free throws certainly contributed to the one-point loss but I think the coaching in Saturday’s game deserves most of the blame. There is lots for the team to learn from in the loss to Wofford and it will be just one of the many growing pains for a squad that could easily exceed expectations when all is said and done this season. Hopefully learning to play Isaiah Philmore and Justin Martin more than Brad Redford, to allow Semaj Christon to take over the game on offense and to play forty minutes of intense defense are a few of the takeaways from the loss.

Sincerely,

Andy Wittry

The Future of the “Catholic Seven”

Last week, the Big East’s seven Catholic, non-FBS schools voted to leave due to the uncertainty of the conference’s future. DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova are set to officially leave the Big East on June 30, 2015 according to Big East spokesman John Paquette and ESPN.com.

The Catholic 7 announced last week that they voted and are going to leave the Big East to form their own conference. (Image courtesy of http://collegebasketballtalk.nbcsports.com/2012/12/15/catholic-7-release-statement-announcing-departure-from-big-east/)
The Catholic 7 announced last week that they voted and are going to leave the Big East to form their own conference. (Image courtesy of http://collegebasketballtalk.nbcsports.com/2012/12/15/catholic-7-release-statement-announcing-departure-from-big-east/)

Ideally, the “Catholic Seven” will campaign to other schools to join them in the creation of a ten-team conference. The schools have two options for the expansion of their future conference–either recruit only Catholic, non-FBS universities or take in the best available schools regardless of their religious affiliations.

If the Catholic Seven want to go the Catholic route, they could acquire Xavier, Dayton and Saint Louis to form a ten team conference. While all three programs would currently be classified as “mid-majors,” they bring recent success that would help the depth of the future conference. The Musketeers have gone to the NCAA Tournament every year since 2006 and have made the Sweet Sixteen five times in the past decade. While Dayton hasn’t made the tourney since 2009, the Flyers’ record has been respectable. UD has a 117-59 record since the ’07-’08 season and the school won the NIT in 2010. Saint Louis is often up and down in the A-10 standings but the Billikens are fresh off of 25-7 season in which they lost in the third round to No. 1 seed Michigan State.

On the other hand, if the seven schools want to compile the best field of teams, then they could look to take Butler and Virginia Commonwealth from the Atlantic 10, in addition to a third school of their choice. Under Coach Brad Stevens, the Butler Bulldogs have a 147-42 record, two National Runner-Up titles, four NCAA Tournament appearances and four conference titles. With an 8-2 start, including wins over No. 9 UNC and No. 1 Indiana, the Bulldogs are back in the spotlight as one of the country’s most relentless teams. Assuming that Butler would be willing to leave the A-10 only a few years after joining the conference, the Bulldogs would be a great addition to the Catholic Seven. Similarly to Butler, Virginia Commonwealth has a young coach who has led the Rams to unimaginable success in the NCAA Tournament. In Shaka Smart’s first season at VCU, the team won the 2010 College Basketball Invitational. In the next two seasons, the Rams made the Final Four and the third round of the tourney. This season, VCU is 8-3 with close losses to No. 5 Duke and No. 13 Missouri. Acquiring Butler, VCU and Xavier would make the Catholic Seven a stronger basketball conference than the future Big East, Pac-12 and A-10.

There are a lot of moving parts in this conference re-alignment but the Catholic Seven have a number of schools to choose from and there are no bad choices among them.