Cincinnati, low to high this season

December 10, 2011 marked a day that many college basketball fans in Cincinnati want to forget. With 9.4 seconds left in the game in the Crosstown Shootout a fight broke out causing the officials to end the game. The video that everyone viewed many times was one that showed a few punches being thrown by Yancy Gates.

It would have been easy for Mick Cronin to kick Gates off the team as well as others involved in the brawl. Instead Gates received a six game suspension, and the Bearcats were thought to be in trouble, pretty much left for dead with non-conference losses to Presbyterian, Marshall (in OT) and Xavier, most of those fears were valid.

Yancy Gates shows his emotions after serving his six game suspension (Google Images)

A quote from Cronin that sticks out to me from the fight is one that should have foreshadowed the support he was going to give his players: “I understand there is media and people asking for autographs. It’s a prime example of you guys thinking they are too important. I’m talking about everybody involved. There’s too much glorification of all of sports in our society. The fact is guys are here the get an education. They represent institutions of higher learning. Xavier has been a great school for years. We’re trying to cure cancer at Cincinnati. I go to school at a place where they discovered the vaccine for polio and created Benadryl. I think that’s more important than who wins a basketball game. And our guys need to have appreciation for the fact that they are there on a full scholarship and they better represent institutions with class and integrity.”

Cronin understands the college basketball concept, they are called student-athletes for a reason, and they are there to learn. They learn not only for basketball but for a career off the court and to learn about life. Gates learned that his actions were not appropriate; he suffered the consequences and learned that he has the support of his coach.

The team pulled together, won seven in a row before dropping a road contest at St. John’s then pulled another three victories. Since the fight the Bearcats are 19-6, just pulled off the biggest win of the season vs Syracuse and are one win away from claiming the Big East Tournament Championship. Let me say that again, Cincinnati can win the Big East Tournament, after those early losses and the fight most Bearcat fans would have laughed at you if you told back in December that they would be in this position in March.

Coming into tonight’s game Gates is averaging 12.3 points and 9.4 rebounds in 32 minutes, with 9 double-doubles. In the double OT win over Georgetown he played 46 minutes, put up 23 points and grabbed 8 boards. In the opener against Villanova he had 16 points and 9 off the glass. Tonight Yates went for 18 points and 7 rebounds.

The Bearcats stuck with Gates, and Gates has stepped up to the plate and has become the type of player Cincinnati needs to advance in the tournament.

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Cuonzo Martin deserves all the credit for Tennessee’s run

Don’t look now, but the Tennessee Volunteers are creeping up the ranks as a possible bubble team for the NCAA Tournament.

Cuonzo Martin has been a big reason for the recent success of Tennessee. And he certainly wears the orange jacket better than Bruce Pearl did.

Winners of eight of their last nine games, Tennessee found a way to grab the No. 2 seed for the Southeastern Conference Tournament, despite five teams lower than them having better overall records.

With a strong finish to the regular season, including wins at Florida and at home over Vanderbilt — two locks for the tournament — the Volunteers have surprised a lot of people under first-year coach Cuzono Martin.

Nobody expected this for the Vols — many thought they would dwell in the cellar of the SEC. After early season losses to Austin Peay, Charleston and Oakland, that prediction seemed likely.

But something changed, all it took was a 69-44 blowout victory to national title perennial favorite Kentucky to put a spark into this team, as they have just lost once since that game at the end of January. Sweeping the season series with the Gators and beating the Commodores shockingly gave them the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed in the SEC.

This year’s Vols don’t necessarily have the star power they have had in the past, with Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris both leaving early after last season’s drama involving Bruce Pearl. But they have had a couple guys come out of nowehere to provide big lifts. Trae Golden, a guy who averaged all of three points a game last year, is currently leading Tennessee in scoring with 13.4 per game. He posted 17 points in each of the most recent Florida and Vanderbilt games.

Jeronne Maymon, in his second season at Tennessee after transferring from Marquette, has seen his minutes increase from just 9.1 last year to 27.8 this year. He has been the main post-presence for the Vols, averaging 12.6 and 7.8 a game. He picked it up when it counted too, scoring at least 12 points in every SEC game.

Perhaps the best player of the three is Jarnell Stokes, who came to Tennesee in January after graduating high school early. In his first start, he posted 16 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in an upset win over UConn. He’s scored in double figures six times this season, and is still just two months removed from his 18th birthday. Stokes has perhaps been the wild card on this team, as they have lost just three times since his first start nearly two months ago. He has quickly become one of the best freshman in the conference this side of Lexington.

What Martin has done this year in his first year at Tennessee coach is pretty remarkable, considering they lost 70 percent of their scoring from last year. They have had unknowns step up big, and that takes a special kind of coach to make that happen.

Those bad early season losses won’t go away, however, and that’s what will hurt Tennessee the most when it comes time to determine if they are good enough to be in the NCAA Tournament. But with those big conference wins, as well as the non-conference win over Connecticut, things are looking good in Knoxville.

They aren’t in yet, but a win or two in the SEC Tournament this weekend will surely help their cause. They’ve got Ole Miss on Friday, a team they beat 73-60 last month. If they win that one they will likely play Vanderbilt, who they beat just last weekend. They are on the outside looking in at the moment, but that can change this weekend. And don’t be surprised if they keep on with their surprises.


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


Bubble teams give big sigh of relief after weekend games

The bubble teams can rejoice. Creighton and Murray State were both able to win the conference tournaments, albeit in close fashion, thus giving them automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament.

The best part about that for the bubble teams is that those two squads were going to be locks anyway. If Illinois State were to win the Missouri Valley or Tennessee State win the Ohio Valley, it would have taken a bid away from a team like Miami or Texas.

Murray's Jewaun Long hit the game-winner for the Racers in the OVC Championship, giving the bubble-teams a scare along the way.

Illinois State and Tennessee State sure made the bubble teams worry though. After upsetting No. 14 Wichita State the previous day, the Redbirds were in good position to knock off Creighton in the MVC championship. Nic Moore drove coast-to-coast for a layup with 6.5 seconds left to force overtime with the Bluejays. Creighton’s Antoine Young took over in the extra period, however, scoring eight of his 14 points in overtime to preserve the victory for the favorite.

As for Tennessee State, they had already defeated Murray once this year — the only loss of the year for the Racers. They almost did it again, up seven points with just over five minutes left. Murray was somehow able to come back and get the automatic bid. Jewaun Long drove the baseline to scored the winning layup with 4.4 seconds left to win it for Murray.

So what does this mean for the rest of the country? The MVC was going to get two bids regardless of the conference tournament, Wichita and Creighton. Likewise for the OVC, where Murray is a lock. This gives the bubble teams a much better chance at making the Big Dance.

Both Creighton and Murray State are threats to make a run in the tournament and possibly pull off an upset. They both feature stars (Isaiah Canaan for Murray and Doug McDermott for Creighton), they are both deadly from deep and they both rebound well — all of which are key in making a March run.

North Carolina-Ashville and Belmont were the top other squads that punched in their automatic bids over the weekend. Ashville will likely be a 15/16 seed, possibly playing one of the first round games. Belmont could possibly be a sleeper to make a run, having not lost since Jan. 21. In their season-opener they lost to Duke by just one point, 77-76. Depending on who they play, their opposition should be on alert next week.

On that note — next week — that feels good to say. This is going to be a fun week for all of us in Championship Week, but the real fun begins next week.


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)


On the Edge (2-29)

Since last week it is safe to say that Kansas State, Purdue, Iowa State and Mississippi State are virtual locks to make it into the NCAA Tournament. With just one regular-season game left for most of the power conference teams, who is close to making themselves a lock for the tournament?

Northwestern: They missed their chance, two of them in fact. In the past eight days the Wildcats have dropped two gut-wrenching games to some top Big Ten competition. First came a 67-55 overtime loss to Michigan State last Tuesday, and then tonight they lost a 75-73 heartbreaker to Ohio State. Just one of those losses may have been Northwestern over the top. To make it even worse, both of those games were at home, and the committee won’t give them many excuses for those games. There is still some hope left, however. Their regular-season finale is at Iowa, and that is obviously a must-win. Then they need to win a couple games in the Big Ten tournament, with hopefully one of them being against one of the five ranked Big Ten teams. This is a team everyone wants in the tournament, but at just 7-10 in conference right now, they are about out of chances. Feb. 29 status: Out

A couple close late season losses have done Northwestern no favors in their hopes to make it to the NCAA Tournament.

Miami: The Hurricanes got lucky. Their starting center Reggie Johnson only had to miss one game after NCAA violations. This puts Miami in a good position. They beat Florida State on Sunday, but a loss to NC State did them no favors. Miami now needs to beat Boston College this weekend, and then not get upset in the ACC Tournament. One upset and they are out. That’s how much Miami is on the bubble right now. Feb. 29 status: In

Connecticut: I definitely can’t figure out the Huskies. At this point I would say their resume doesn’t warrant an at-large bid. After that buzzer-beater win at Villanova, I thought the Huskies had a shot at turning things around. They lost a close one against Syracuse, and came back from that with a loss at Providence. No really, Providence. They have now lost nine out of 12 games, and the committee certainly won’t like that. They play a Pitt team this weekend that is playing better ball than them at the moment. A couple wins in the Big East tournament will be a must, but they don’t have a Kemba Walker to save them this year. Feb. 29 status: Out

Texas: Simply put, the Longhorns are hanging on by a thread. They continue to beat the teams they should beat (Texas Tech and Oklahoma most recently). A win at Kansas this weekend will make them a lock, but that will be a tough one. Assuming they lose that one, they will be 19-9 with a similar situation as Miami — right on the edge. There will be no room for error in the Big 12 tournament. A loss early on and there bubble will be burst. Feb. 29 status: In

South Florida: Their win over Louisville tonight may have put them over the top. Now they need to just not lose early on in the Big East tournament. But even with a first or second round loss, it will be hard for the committee to not give the fifth place team in the Big East an at-large bid. They have played arguably the easiest schedule in conference, but with wins over tourney teams Cinci and Louisville within the past three days, they seem to be in good shape. Feb. 29 Status: In

Colorado and Oregon: These two teams play each other tomorrow in what may be the biggest Pac-12 game of the year. Both teams look to be out at the moment, so whichever team loses will likely not have a shot at the NCAA’s. The winner may just be able to position itself as one of the last teams in to make it. The Pac-12 should get four times in the tournament — California, Arizona and Washington all seem like good bets to make it. No chance this conference gets five teams in, so that’s why the Colorado-Oregon game tomorrow is a must-win on both sides.

Xavier: The Musketeers have not played up to potential all year, going just 9-6 in the Atlantic-10. Non-conference wins against Vanderbilt, Purdue and Cincinatti are all solid, but they are 0-3 against the top two teams in the conference (Temple and Saint Louis). They have swapped between wins and losses there last 8 games, but those non-conference wins still hold. As long as they don’t lose early in the conference tournament they should be in a position to grab one of the last at-larges. Feb. 29 Status: In

St Joseph’s: I’m not sure if both the Hawks and Musketeers can both make it in. St. Joes had a big win vs. Temple over the weekend, but still will need a little help to get in. Their biggest non-conference win of the year game against Creighton. They lost their only game of the year to Xavier, and a 9-7 conference record won’t go well with the committee. If they run into Xavier in the A-10 tournament, that could be a win-and-you’re-in game. Feb. 29 Status: Out