Who are the most underrated national champs of all-time?

Everyone remembers the champs. From the first NCAA champions in Oregon in 1939 to last year’s UConn team, hoopheads can tell you who won.

Problem is, some are more remembered than others in history. The 1951 Kentucky squad coined the Fabulous Five.  The UCLA teams of the early 1970s were arguably the most dominant of their era. Right after, the 1976 Indiana team still remains the last undefeated champion in Division I college basketball.

In between the ones that are always brought up, there are the champs that don’t come to mind. At least not at first, anyway.

So who are they? TBBC looks into who are the most underrated champions all-time and why.

1989-90 UNLV

Record – 35-5

Coach – Jerry Tarkanian

What everyone remembers – That four of their starting five would eventually be drafted into the NBA. The team that was hounded by the NCAA arguably more than any program in college basketball history — with reason — had horses with the centerpiece of forward Larry Johnson (in his first season of Division I ball out of Odessa College), veteran point guard Greg Anthony, reliable forward Stacey Augmon, do-it-all utility man George Ackles and sharpshooter Anderson Hunt, who was the Big West Player of the Year as a sophomore, prior to Johnson’s arrival on campus.

The Runnin’ Rebels (you can’t leave off the ‘runnin”) demolished Duke in the largest margin of victory in NCAA Championship Game history, 103-73. Prompting the memorable “chair lean” from Tark.

What everyone doesn’t remember – This team played rough, but they also scored in bunches . The Runnin’ Rebels eclipsed 100 points in 15 games and scored 90-plus in another eight. And after dropping a 107-105 decision to LSU on Jan. 27, UNLV finished the season winning 22 of their final 23 games, with a 78-70 loss to UC-Santa Barbara on Feb. 25 the only blemish. They dominated opponents, winning by an average of 15 points per game.

Why are they underrated? – They’re a victim of their own doing. Despite the run UNLV had, everyone remembers the 1990-91 UNLV team that ran over everyone on their way to an undefeated regular season and a loss to the same Duke team in the national semifinals a year later. That dominant run — followed by an epic collapse  — made that squad more memorable than the team that won it all.

1994-95 UCLA

Record - 31-1

Coach – Jim Herrick

What everyone remembers – The return to prominence for one of the more storied college basketball programs in history and brought the program its first NCAA title since the legendary coach John Wooden got his last in 1975.

Oh, and those two words that weren’t in Mizzou’s vocabulary: STOP BALL.

What everyone doesn’t remember – Despite the record, the Bruins had a rough start to conference play….they lost their Pac-10 opener to Oregon 82-72. They were arguably one of the dullest (I mean that with love) champions of the 90s, but one of the best single-game performances came at the hands of Ed O’Bannon with 30 points and 17 rebounds in the national title game, an 89-78 win over Arkansas.

And their schedule wasn’t easy, with seven regular season games against Top 25 teams and five of their six games in the NCAA Tournament as well — which is impressive in the 64-team field.

Why are they underrated? –  Most teams that won it all in the 90s had some sort of future-pro star power. This one simply didn’t. Herrick took a cast of talented players, none of which would have much of a career in the NBA, to the title. Tyus Edney’s staggered four seasons in the league were the most of any Bruin from this team.

1973-74 North Carolina State

Record – 30-1

Coach – Norm Sloan

What everyone remembers – The Wolfpack will always be known as the team that interrupted The Dynasty of the John Wooden-coached UCLA teams of the late ’60s and early ’70s. They upset the Bruins 80-77 in their national semifinal contest and took out Marquette in the national title game. David Thompson was the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player along with earning his first of two national player of the year awards.

What everyone doesn’t remember- Before their Final Four win over UCLA, for the most part, N.C. State stayed at no. 2 in the nation behind UCLA. The Bruins made sure that they stayed there with an 84-66 beat down of the Wolfpack early in the season.

In fact, N.C. State was thisclose to not even making the NCAA Tournament, needing overtime to beat no.3 Maryland 103-100 in the finals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. The NCAA tournament only took 25 teams that season, and only began to include at-large teams in 1975.

Why are they underrated? – They get lost, like most teams of the 1960s and early 1970s, in the shuffle of the UCLA juggernaut. Thompson was far-and-away the star, but N.C. State also had 7-4 center Tom Burleson’s 18 points and 11.7 boards per game and 5-7 point guard Monte Towe was one of the best floor generals in the game at a time when assists weren’t seen in the same light as they are now.

1997-98 Kentucky

Record - 35-4

Coach – Tubby Smith

What everyone remembers – Ask anybody who knows that team, they first thing you’ll normally hear out of their mouths is “it was Rick Pitino’s team.” Pitino left after reaching his second straight NCAA Final in 1997, taking the Boston Celtics head job, and as a result, Smith inherited a gold mine. Aside from that, the team was the third straight Wildcat squad to make it to the Final Four, cementing itself as the team of the 1990s (Getting thrashed by UNLV gives UK the edge here, Duke fans….)

….And so does this:

What everyone doesn’t remember – Despite the “Tubby just had to roll the balls out in practice” schtick, this was a team full of players that just knew their role. The Wildcats took an early-season loss to the team that beat them in the 1997 NCAA Final, Arizona. The roster also featured four first round picks in Jamaal Magloire, Nazr Muhammed, Scott Padgett and Michael Bradley (though Bradley would transfer to Villanova after  the 1998-99 season.

The team was as balanced as any in its era, with Jeff Sheppard the team’s leading scorer at 13.7 points per game. In fact, only 4.9 points separated Sheppard and the team’s sixth-leading scorer, Heshimu Evans (8.8 ppg). Four players also averaged at least four rebound per game — the most was Mohammed’s 7.2.

Why are they underrated? - They were at the tail end of a dynasty that the original architect didn’t finish. Everyone remembers the 1996 team as one of the most dominant teams of the era, and that hurts when remembering the best teams of the 90s. But when looking at the numbers, the ’97-’98 team holds their own. The Wildcats won all three of their Southeastern Conference tournament games by double-digits, including a 99-74 drubbing of no. 16 Arkansas in the semifinals and an 86-56 pasting of no. 15 South Carolina in the finals. Impressive considering their strength of schedule was 9th in the nation.

1976-77 Marquette

Record – 25-7

What everyone remembers – Al McGuire in his awesome suits were retiring at the end of the Warriors’ (as they were known until 1994) season. Butch Lee hitting spinning lay-up after spinning lay-up. Lee, the Most Outstanding Player of that tournament, headlined that team, which played in one of the more amazing endings to a Final Four game in history against UNC-Charlotte (more on that below).

What everyone doesn’t remember – ….And it’s incredible really. Jerome Whitehead pulls in the three quarter-court pass from Lee with three seconds to go just inside the free throw line, turns, one dribble, and stuffs it home for a 51-49 win over the 49ers and a trip to the title game against North Carolina.

It also wasn’t an easy road for the Warriors, who were in their second Final Four in four years. They played no. 11 Cincinnati in the first round, Kansas State in the second, then no. 9 Wake Forest in the Elite Eight, UNC-Charlotte — no. 17 at the time — in the semifinals, then finished with no. 5 North Carolina in the title game.

Also, a soon-to-be prominent coach named Rick Majerus (R.I.P.) was an assistant on that team.

Why are they underrated? – It’s a team that, like N.C. State, gets lost in the shuffle of the 1970s. They weren’t necessarily spectacular, but they averaged 70 points per game without a three-point line and had two Top 20 NBA Draft picks in Lee and Bo Ellis on the roster. They also didn’t finish all that high in the polls, ranking between no. 6 and no. 15 for most of the year.

It was one of the more impressive stories in college basketball history, with the small, Jesuit school in Milwaukee sending their retiring coach out as the ultimate winner. It’s stuff that sports movies are made out of.

Got a better idea? Did we forget anyone? Hit us on Twitter at @David_Harten or @TBBChronicles or with an email at TBBChronicles@gmail.com.


“Rock, Chalk, Championship”

We have made it to the final weekend of college basketball.

New Orleans is the place to be, for those that are stuck watching CBS, hopefully they don’t use the SkyCam shot too much, and hopefully Jim Nantz doesn’t force his ‘non-scripted’ sayings into the broadcast.

On one side of the bracket you have a bitter instate rivalry, Louisville vs Kentucky. Being from Louisville I have to list Louisville first, Kentucky can not be first when you list these two teams. One the other side Ohio State and Kansas face off for the right to play in the last college game of the season.

The College Basketball world is focused on New Orleans, it will be a sea of red and blue. (Google Images)

Back on December 10 Kansas defeated the Buckeyes 78-67, Thomas Robinson led Kansas with 21 points and 7 rebounds, however Jared Sullinger was out for the Buckeyes with an injury.

The Jayhawks are making their 14th Final Four appearance, they are one of six schools to appear in the Final Four at least 10 times, Kentucky and Ohio State are also on this list.

Here are a few reasons why the Jayhawks might cut down the nets on Monday. Kansas has out rebounded 29 of their 37 opponents, shot a higher percentage than 34 teams. In all of their games this season six different players have led the team in scoring, so they do not rely on one player to provide the spark. The Jayhawks have won 11 Final Four games (6th best in college basketball).

Thomas Robinson was named the ESPN.com 2012 National Player of the Year, is a First-Team All-American as well as Big 12 Player of the Year. With 17.7 ppg and 11.8 rpg, Robinson is the only player in the Big 12 that is averaging a double-double. Tyshawn Taylor has scored 20 or more points in five of his last nine games. The downside for Kansas, they are 2-4 in the Superdome.

If you are a fan can this Final Four be any better? You are in New Orleans, you have Kentucky and Kansas, two programs that have fans that are everywhere and travel well. You have the Louisville fans that flock to destinations to watch the Cardinals and you have Ohio State wanting to prove that the Big Ten is a power basketball conference.


It’s happening. Mother of God, it’s happening

It started in 1983 in the NCAA Mideast Regional. This is much bigger.

-It took awhile to fathom what I’m writing. What you’re about to read.

For those around my age, we all heard from our parents about the 1983 Dream Game. Louisville, a team that had pined to play Kentucky for so long, got their shot because they met in the Mideast Regional of the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals came out on top 80-68 in overtime in Knoxville. I didn’t even have to look any of that up, I swear.

We all heard about 1984, a Kentucky win, as well, in the NCAA Tournament. Those were great games, but it all pales in comparison to what we’re about to witness.

Louisville and Kentucky are about to meet in the Final Four.

Take a second and think about it. Think about all the times anyone hoped this could happen, then shook it off.

It’s happening.

In my (incredibly biased) opinion, Kentucky and Louisville is the best rivalry in college basketball. I’ll spare the details, because that’s not why I’m writing this. But it’s happening.

Two of the top 10 programs in college basketball history, interstate rivals, a bitter hatred among the coaches, the whole nine. There are too many moments in the past that define this rivalry. The Dream Game, Samaki Walker’s triple-double, Pitino’s return to Rupp, Patrick Spark’s three free throws, Edgar Sosa’s 3-pointer saving a near-collapse. Anyone who has paid any attention to these two teams has a moment.

And now it’s happening on the biggest stage of college basketball. In a city that thrives on things getting totally out-of-hand.

And that city thought the BCS National Title Game was insane.

The two fanbases need no more motivation to hate one another. Both teams, while they’ll deny it until the end, now have more motivation.

While most expected Kentucky to be in this position, no one saw Louisville coming. A 4-seed and a generous West Region allowed it to happen.

No matter which way you slice it, Kentucky looks like a heavy favorite, and it should be. The no. 1-overall seed is there for a reason. Louisville has nothing to lose, which also makes them dangerous.

But none of that matters this week. The city of Louisville is about to explode. Sports talk radio will talk about nothing else. If you’re a supervisor, don’t expect anyone to get much work done. And if you doubt that this rivalry is one of the tops in college basketball, I invite you to go to Youtube and explore, it won’t  take much time.

I could never imagine this ever happening in my lifetime.

It’s about to. Good Lord is it ever.

-PHOTO: RIVALS.COM/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS


Wisconsin is boring — painfully so — but they’ll make the Final Four

Wisconsin has a point guard in Jordan Taylor who doesn't give the ball up...and it sucks to watch. But they could crash the Final Four.

-Bo Ryan is a boring coach. His offenses are boring. His defenses? Boring. One can compare watching his Wisconsin teams to watching paint dry, or getting rusty nails shoved up your eyelids.

It’s almost painful to watch the Badgers. They average 58.8 possession per game according to Ken Pomeroy and his fool-proof numbers. That’s (ahem) the second slowest pace of any team of all 345 programs in Division I college basketball — the only team slower being Western Illinois.

The snail’s pace offense that Ryan has Wisconsin run amounts to 64 points per game, also near the bottom of all D-I teams. It’s excruciating.

But this is just one of the reasons Wisconsin will be a Final Four team. Yea, I said it. Here’s why.

1.) The painfully slow offensive sets.

-The Badgers are a slow-down offense. In a time when patience is a virtue, this team makes it a demand. Being able to run means jack in the NCAA Tournament. Any team that makes the Sweet 16, as Wisconsin now has, can run the fast-break. That’s what elite teams can do. They all have top-tier point guards that can run (I could run through them all, but you can look if you want).

What wins games though? Having the awareness that while the other team wants to pressure you defensively, knowing you’re just content swinging the ball around the perimeter and waiting for the right time to feed the post. It’s a necessity.

2.) A ball-securing point guard.

-Turnovers lose games for teams at this level. Wisconsin has possibly the most reliable point guard in the game when it comes to keeping possession. Jordan Taylor is not only a senior who’s been in this position before (played in 135 career games), but he knows what to do while in it.

The most important thing? Taylor has absolutely no clue how to make the risky pass. That’s a compliment. Along with averaging an even 4.0 assists this season, the 6-1 senior gives it away an average of 1.5 times per game. In 2011-12, he has just 55 total turnovers and just 97 total over the past two seasons (he averaged 4.7 assists last season). This season, he’s got 141 assists as well. In the clutch, you can have your playmakers, for my money, I want a guy who knows not only that a team needs points, but that they need the ball, before they can score.

Speaking of which….

3.) You don’t take their ball.

-Taylor is a major reason for this, but Wisconsin doesn’t give it away very often. In fact, the Badgers only cough it up 15.2 times per game, second in the nation. In big games, holding onto the ball means just as much as having a guy who can score in any way you need.  They also know how to keep it from you in the 1-on-1, giving it away  on steals only 7.2 times per game, eighth in the nation.

4.) Defense, defense, defense.

-Wisconsin doesn’t just guard you, no, they suffocate you. It’s in the numbers. Checking KenPom.com can really shed some light on it. The Badgers are top 10 in the nation in effective defensive field goal percentage (2nd, 42-percent), 3-point percentage defense (6th, 28.8-percent) and 2-point percentage defense (5th, 41.6-percent). Being that consistent means that you’re doing it right against all levels of competition.

They don’t necessarily force turnovers — they only force an average of 18.3 per game — but if their opponents don’t make shots, that doesn’t matter.

They aren’t flashy, and honestly, they make a lot of crowds that aren’t decked out in their colors want to fall asleep while watching them. But if the opponent is asleep, hey, who can stop them? Another advantage?

-PHOTO: DRAFTXPRESS.COM/GOOGLE IMAGES

 


How Kendall Marshall’s injury affects the Tar Heels, individually (duh)

Without Kendall Marshall's 9.8 assist-gasm per game, UNC's scorers will be forced to transform their games a little bit.

-Ok, obvious headline. But all I keep hearing about is how North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall’s fractured wrist will affect the team as a whole. No one, however, has addressed exactly how.

Sure, this means one of the top distributors in the nation won’t be dishing out assists if he doesn’t play against Ohio — which by all accounts, is a winnable game without him, which is why I believe they save him for the Elite 8 — but what does it limit the Tar Heels main bigs/shooters from doing? A quick look.

Tyler Zeller (16.4 ppg, 55.4-percent from the field): By-in-large, Zeller has been the model of consistency for UNC this season. He’s a definite when it comes to ball distribution in the post (it has to go through him, a la David Padgett for Louisville from 2005-08) but it’s when he gets the ball down low, he does his best work to put it in. Zeller is hardly a face-up guy, which means he lives to get the feeds. Without a penetrate-and-dish PG like Marshall, Zeller will have to learn to possibly live 10-to-15 feet from the basket and use the mid-range jumper he’s slowly developed, or expect double-teams all night.

Harrison Barnes (17.3 ppg, 45.0-percent): By far the one player on the squad who will miss Marshall the least, should he not play. Barnes is nearly NBA-ready with the ability and size to slash in the lane and also create his own shot off the dribble. He doesn’t need Marshall to create for him, but it doesn’t hurt. He does however, benefit probably the most from the defensive collapses that Marshall draws on his forays to the bucket. Barnes will have to create more if Marshall doesn’t play, which could also shine some much-needed light on whether or not this is his final season in Chapel Hill.

James Michael McAdoo (5.8 ppg, 45.5-percent): He’s almost a Barnes-light. He does what the Super Sophomore does, only to a lesser-experienced extent. McAdoo needs Marshall because frankly, he goes off what the floor general tells him. Expect him to take more set shots, if for no other reason, because he’s not going to be able to move much with the ball.

John Henson (13.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 50.3-percent): As if it wasn’t bad enough when Henson when down with a wrist injury of his own, now this. Henson has since returned, but while he’s mainly a defensive presence, he’s the soundest on the court for UNC when it comes to acting on the Pick-And-Roll and knowing when to cut to the hoop for a Marshall pass (hence, the dude gets a ton of put-back slams with his insane length). Henson will have to get on the same page with freshman point-man Stilman White quickly or just hope for a lot of second-chance dunks.

Reggie Bullock (8.7 ppg, 42.8-percent): He’s in the same boat as his freshman cohort, James Michael McAdoo, but he lives in the post. Look for Bullock to become the garbage man. He’s going to be looking for a lot of second-chance points, a lot of free throws. Just whatever he can get.

UNC can survive without Marshall, but that means to key players for the Heels will be forced to take on new roles. Roles that could mean if they make a run to the title without Marshall (again, he hasn’t been ruled out yet) it could be a greater run than last year’s UConn team to the ‘ship.

-PHOTO: NATIONOFBLUE.COM/GOOGLE IMAGES


Five stats that might help you win your bracket pool

Bo Ryan's Wisconsin team is tops in two of The Backboard Chronicle's five stats-to-help-you-win, and third in another. But jeez, that offense.

-Everyone has method to their March Madness. Picking the best mascot, the colors they like, seeing which treat your dog goes after first. Some of us who go deeper with (over-think) our picks have a slightly more structured way of making our decisions on who advances in our brackets.

For those of you who haven’t locked in picks just yet, here’s a list of stats that can help you pick or not pick certain teams in the Big Dance. Thanks to the glories of KenPom.com, RealTimeRPI.com and Statsheet.com. These stats are essential to great teams in the NCAA Tournament. Trust us, we’re experts, sorta.

For obvious reasons, these stats aren’t just ‘points’ ‘rebounds’ and ‘field goal percentage’ because that’s too damn easy and obviously has an effect, but vary from game-to-game. These statistics you’ll see below have been consistent with winning all season and can go unnoticed.

1.) STATISTIC: Three-Point Defense

REASON: Aside from being scrappy last season, all four Final Four teams in 2010-11 had one thing in common, they could stroke the three. So you better damn will be able to defend it well to stop a squad who can. This also means a team has guard length, lateral quickness and is disciplined — no lunging in desperation while on the ball — when guarding a guy 20-feet out.

BEST REMAINING TEAM: No. 3-seed Georgetown, 26.6% (Best the nation)

2.) STATISTIC: Adjusted Tempo

REASON: This is a KenPom stat, but it’s crucial. It’s based on the number of possessions a team gets per game and if you ask anyone that knows the game, if a team can’t slow down and play a game in the half-court, a team won’t go very far/as far as they were projected. A perfect example is Kentucky in 2009-10. Despite being the best in the nation on the break, John Wall and Co. were slowed by West Virginia in the Elite 8, and succumbed as a result.

BEST REMAINING TEAM: Wisconsin, 58.9 possessions per game. (Best in the nation)

3.) STATISTIC: Assist-to-Turnover Ratio

REASON: Ok, so it’s not the least obvious stat, but it often gets forgotten that teams’ guards have to take care of the ball, especially in clutch situations. Experience means nothing if Point Guard X is dribbling the ball off his foot down two with less than a minute to play. It makes a coach trust his floor general, and relaxes the rest of the players on the floor. It goes way past just being able to make the play.

BEST REMAINING PLAYER: Kyle Cassidy, St. Louis, 3.6 A-T-T Ratio. (Best in the nation)

4.) STATISTIC: Free Throw Percentage

REASON: How many times per tournament does a game come down to free throws? A-freakin’-lot. Make sure the team has a solid percentage from the stripe, or else it could mean curtains for your dark horse Sweet 16 pick.

BEST REMAINING TEAM: Wisconsin, 81.8% (Best in the nation). Also, second in the nation? Harvard at 81%.

5.) STATISTIC: Percentage of Points for 2-Pts

REASON: Weird right? Why would it matter that a team gets most of their points from inside the arc? Because any team that relies on the three to win games rarely makes it THAT far. That’s why they’re called a “Cinderella Story”. A team that can penetrate and get it inside can make teams collapse, then open up the outside shot. It’s more than just scoring down there, it’s also about creating for the three.

BEST REMAINING TEAM: LIU-Brooklyn, 62.1% (Best in the nation). For safety’s sake the No. 2 is Duke (61.5%) and No. 3 is Wisconsin (60.4%).

Those few stats can help increase your bracket efficiency, maybe. We also learned that Wisconsin should win the whole friggin’ thing, according to our research. I’m going to redo my bracket now.

-PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS/GOOGLE IMAGES


The true genius of VCU’s season, all credit to Shaka Smart

Shaka Smart has rebuilt VCU, replacing four starters of last season's Final Four team, with better results to this point, compared to last year.

-Think back to last season. About this time, Virginia Commonwealth was an afterthought.

Really, who saw the run coming? Definitely not Jay Bilas. But it happened. A team with a younger-than-young head coach, a diminutive point guard in Joey Rodriguez somehow snagged an at-large bid that a lot of folks (myself included) thought they were undeserving of and made it through the First Four and into the Final Four. It was more improbable than Butler’s first run.

Then it ended. The Rams lost four of their top five scorers — Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen, Ed Nixon and Brandon Rozzell — the lone hold being now-senior Bradford Burgess. So coach Shaka Smart had to ask himself the most crucial question coming off the most successful season in program history, that included a 28-12 overall record: Where do we go from here?

The answer was ‘get better’. Obvious, but accurate.

VCU just locked up their second-straight NCAA Tournament, and this one probably won’t begin in the First Four, with a 28-6 record and a Colonial Athletic Association tournament title. They’re currently no.46 in the KenPom and no.39 spot in the RPI (according to RealTimeRPI.com). That’s nice, until you consider that they finished last season ranked 52 in the KenPom.

It’s tough to make the run the Rams did last season. It’s tougher to repeat that run when everyone knows you’re coming. It’s nearly impossible to do it when you’ve lost most of everyone that mattered to that run to graduation. Smart has done that so far.

He’s had help. Burgess has actually lightened his scoring load from 14.3 to 13.3 points per game this season and in turn, some of last season’s role players have stepped it up. Darius Theus went from 3.0 points to 8.6 this year. Juvonte Reddic? He’s now pumping out 10.6 points per game in 27.5 minutes per game after averaging 3.5 in 11.2 minutes in 2010-11. Troy Daniels drops in 10 per game after averaging 2.1 points in 4.8 minutes last season.

Granted, all teams get contributions from lesser players as seasons change. But not like this, not at a mid-major that until this past season hasn’t had any buzz outside of a few Metro Conference and Sun Belt Conference tournament titles.

This team does it more with their defense, averaging three less points (68.4 from 71.6) this season and holding opponents to 59.8 points per game, as opposed to the 66.8 teams put in against them in 2010-11.

So here they are waiting for Selection Sunday, not to see if they get a bid, but where they go. CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm has them as a 12-seed in Portland playing Louisville.

You don’t have to expect a deep tournament run, but you should respect what Smart and the Rams have done, despite starting essentially from scratch.

-PHOTO:VCUATHLETICS.COM


Ready to cut the nets?

Get the ladders and succors ready, today is the day that we start cutting down the nets.

Big South Championship: VMI vs UNC Asheville. The top seeded Bulldogs defeated the Keydets twice this season, but they always say it’s tough to beat a team three times. Asheville is 5th in the nation is Points Per Game (81.3), VMI is 6thwith 80.2. (Noon ESPN2).

At the end of the day three teams know they will hear their name on Selection Sunday (Google Images)

OVC Championship: Murray State vs Tennessee State. The Tigers were able to get the win February 9th, while the Racers won the 2nd meeting. What have we not said about the Racers, it’s been a season to that the team and fan base will not forget. (2pm ESPN2).

Atlantic Sun Championship: Florida Gulf Coast vs Belmont. To go dancing the Bruins will have to get their 3rd win over the Eagles this season, both wins have been by more than 20 points. The Bruins rank 4th in the nation in Points Per Game with 81.5, 5th in Assist Per Game with 17.5. (7pm ESPN2)

Other games to note today: The ESPN hype will be focused on Tobacco Road with UNC @ Duke (7pm ESPN), Georgetown @ Marquette (2pm Big East Network), Baylor @ Iowa State (7pm ESPN Full Court), San Francisco @ St. Mary’s (9pm ESPN2)


One player makes a ton of difference, just ask Randy Bennett

Holt's knee injury kept out a key cog in the Gaels lineup. Especially one that would've gone a long way to stopping Isaiah Canaan.

MURRAY, Ky. — There’s plenty one could devour when looking at no. 16 Murray State’s 65-51 victory over no. 21 St. Mary’s. I mean, a lot. And afterward, the coaches, they agreed.

But one thing that Gaels coach Randy Bennett did talk about had nothing to do with the game. Well, one name, rather. That was guard Stephen Holt, who sat out with a knee injury suffered in their home loss to Loyola Marymount on Wednesday.

Normally, that wouldn’t be an excuse in a game like this. And if you ask Bennett, it still wasn’t. But the West Coast Conference’s leader in steals not being on the court to guard arguably the Ohio Valley Conference’s soon-to-be Player of the Year, Isaiah Canaan, hurt. Bad. Just look at Canaan’s stat line: 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting, 5-of-8 from 3-point range and only three turnovers.

“It was a big factor,” Bennett said. “You could argue he’s our best player for what he does defensively. We are in a tough spot without him. We didn’t have a lot of quickness out there and were pretty much on our heels.”

It doesn’t help that Holt was St. Mary’s third-leading scorer at 10.4 points per game, on 50-percent shooting on the season (87-for-174). Those numbers could’ve helped in a game that the Gaels couldn’t get a shot to drop from beyond the arch (2-of-14), much less overall (20-of-53, 37.7-percent).

Instead, St. Mary’s was forced to suffer through a 1-for-10 shooting night from guard Jorden Page — who finished with three points — and an overall 12-for-37 shooting night from the healthy starters.

In his post-game press conference, Bennett used Holt’s name too many times for a player who didn’t factor in to the contest. He understands his player’s value. One other thing Bennett knows? That Holt probably won’t play in the Gaels’ next game against Portland on Thursday.

This is definitely not the St. Mary’s team that had folks drooling just last month. Point guard Matthew Dellavadova limped his way to a team-high 17 points, 0-for-4 from three. Racers forward Ed Daniel, all 6-7 of him (eight), out-rebounded St. Mary’s starting front line of Clint Steindl, Rob Jones (10.4 board per game) and Kyle Rowley by himself (seven). They’ve lost three of their last four games and along with the L’s have also lost any hope of an at-large berth, meaning they’ll have to survive possible dates with Gonzaga and BYU in next month’s WCC Tournament to punch a ticket to the Big Dance for the fourth time under Bennett.

“It’s not easy to figure out what the problem is,” Bennett said.

This isn’t the same team we’re used too. And while Stephen Holt may not be the whole solution, tonight, in a game that the Gaels had to win to keep up their at-large hopes, his absence spoke volumes about how far this team has slid in a short amount of time.

-PHOTO: GOOGLE IMAGES/FOXSPORTS.COM


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