Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reeling Syracuse Needs Monday Night Win

It was on Jan. 15 that the Syracuse men’s basketball team pushed its record to a perfect 18-0 after a 15-point dismantling of Cincinnati. Ranked fourth in the country and playing as well as anyone in the country, Jim Boeheim’s Orange-clad group had become a chic pick to make a Final Four push come March.

But in the four weeks after the Orange’s big win over the Bearcats, Syracuse has fallen on such hard times that it seems reasonable to suggest that the Orange are no longer even a tournament lock. Since the home win over Cincinnati — Syracuse’s most recent home win, by the way — Boeheim’s bunch have gone 2-6 and fallen into ninth place in the Big East.

It was just a handful of years ago that a different orange-clad team started a season 17-0 and failed to make the NCAA tournament; that time, it was the Clemson Tigers of the ACC who saw their great start end in a final record of 21-10 and an invitation to the NIT.

Remember: The NCAA tournament selection committee takes a long, hard look at how teams fared in the final stretch of the regular season. A great start can easily be undone by a wretched finish in the committee’s eyes.

However, it still is only mid-February which means that Syracuse has more than enough time to turn this around. So, let’s break this down a little bit, starting with the positives …
  • As it stands now, people like ESPN’s Joe Lunardi were giving Syracuse a four-seed as recently as Friday and the team is a solid No. 20 in the RPI. The Orange has 10 quality wins, three of which came against top-30 teams in the RPI.
  • Syracuse has five more regular season games, two of which are against teams — Georgetown and Villanova — that could give the Orange a nice high-profile win. Two of the remaining three games — home meetings with DePaul and Rutgers — are very winnable games for Syracuse.
  • Playing in the Big East has its benefits, as after the regular season the Orange will get to wipe the slate clean and take a crack at registering multiple quality wins in the conference’s postseason tournament.  
But now for the negatives …
  • Those two remaining chances for high-profile regular season wins will both come on the road against clubs who A) are playing much better than Syracuse right now and B) both beat the Orange in the Carrier Dome.
  • The highest number of teams to ever make the tournament from one conference? Eight. The Big East seems a lock to get at least nine, maybe 10, spots this season in the Big Dance thanks to the tournament’s expansion to 68 teams, but Syracuse currently sits in ninth in conference play. That certainly puts them on the bubble.
  • Playing in the Big East also has its negatives. It’s not far-fetched to see a sliding Syracuse find itself out of the conference tournament before the quarterfinal round even starts. As it stands now with Syracuse in ninth place — albeit, just out of eighth place by percentage points — the Orange would need to win two games to make it to the final eight of the Big East’s postseason.
So all of this brings me to the one game I have not mentioned yet — Syracuse’s home affair on Monday night against West Virginia. From my figuring, Monday night’s game is the must-win for the Orange, since it is the team’s best remaining chance to add a top-30 win to its resume. In my opinion, if they defeat West Virginia on Monday night the Orange are in the tournament and will be no worse than a fifth seed; however, a loss to the Mountaineers will put Syracuse in extreme (postseason) peril.

Here’s why: Let’s say Syracuse loses on Monday night, takes care of business against Rutgers, drops both road games against Georgetown and Villanova, and easily dispatches of DePaul; the Orange then fall out of the Big East Tournament in the second round at the hands of someone like St. Johns or UConn.

Such a (likely) hypothetical finish to the Orange’s season would leave Syracuse with a 23-10 record on the season, but only one meaningful win (UConn on Feb. 2) in the season’s final two months. Furthermore, Syracuse would enter Selection Sunday as the losers of 10 of its final 15 games.   

My hunch is that Syracuse takes care of business on Monday night and knocks off West Virginia at the Carrier Dome. Though sliding, it’s tough to envision the Orange losing a fourth straight home game. But, if the clock hits all zeros on Monday night and the scoreboard is showing a victory for the visitors, any Orange-fan panic will not be undeserved.
--Michael Kelly

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Catching up with the Liberty League (Women's Basketball)

All three local teams — RPI, Skidmore and Union — are still alive and fighting for spots in the Liberty League's four-team postseason tournament. With just one week of regular season games left to play, let's take a look at each of the three teams' chances of advancing to postseason play in the (suddenly) topsy-turvy Liberty League; six teams are within 1 1/2 games of each other in the standings after Saturday's games.

RPI (10-12, 6-5), fifth-place tie 

RPI picked up a big win on Saturday, downing first-place Union, 55-52. The Engineers have a quick turnaround and will host Vassar on Tuesday.

At 6-5 in league play, RPI is likely one of three teams fighting for the conference tournament's fourth and final spot; right now three teams (Union, St. Lawrence and William Smith) sit in a first-place tie at 8-4, while Skidmore (7-5) is in fourth place and Vassar (6-5) is tied with RPI.

For RPI to secure the Liberty's fourth spot, a win on Tuesday is all but a necessity because a loss will put Skidmore 1 1/2 games up and Vassar 1 game up on the Engineers. Looking forward from Tuesday's game, RPI should beat Hamilton (2-10) next weekend while an away game at first-place William Smith will be a challenge.

To have a chance, RPI needs to win at least two games and likely needs all three.

Skidmore (11-11, 7-5), fourth place

The Thoroughbreds did themselves no favor in losing at Vassar on Saturday, 59-49. With a win in Saturday's game, Skidmore would have joined the tie atop the Liberty League and been feeling pretty secure in its positioning for the playoffs.

Even still, Skidmore could be a lot worse off — the Thoroughbreds final two games are at home and one of them is against last-place Clarkson. The other is against first-place St. Lawrence, a team the Thoroughbreds lost to by nine earlier this season.

Given Vassar and RPI still play each other one more time — guaranteeing a loss for one of those two clubs — Skidmore definitely seems to be in the driver's seat.

Union (13-7, 8-4), tied for first place

The Dutchwomen look pretty safe for the tournament; Union is a game up on fourth-place Skidmore and also owns the tiebreaker against the Thoroughbreds, having defeated Skidmore twice this season.

But Union still has work to do — the Dutchwomen would like to earn that top seed, if only because whoever finishes as the top team does not get a first-round date with the two other Liberty League squads currently tied for first.

To this end, things do not break too badly for Union. The Dutchwomen have two remaining games — both at home — and one of them is against last-place Clarkson (2-10). The other one is against St. Lawrence, giving the Dutchwomen a chance to knock off one of its first-place rivals in the final weekend of the season; however, Union did lose to St. Lawrence by 13 points when the two teams met earlier this season.

To finish with the top seed, Union will likely need to win both games. If the Dutchwomen win both games, first place should be there for them — two wins means St. Lawrence has lost and William Smith has a tough back-to-back (fourth-place hopefuls RPI and Vassar) next weekend.

At the very worst, one win should push Union into the postseason as no worse than the fourth seed.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Catching up with the Liberty League (Men's Basketball)

With just three games to go for most Liberty League men’s basketball combatants, the race for the league tournament’s four spots is kicking into full swing. Here’s a quick breakdown for the league's two local teams — RPI and Skidmore; Union is in second-to-last place — with postseason aspirations.

RPI (13-7, 7-3), Second Place

To start this off, RPI picked up a huge win on Friday night when it hosted Skidmore. The Engineers emerged with a 65-63 win paced by a 16-point effort from senior Travis Jones, as RPI just barely escaped — the team had led by 11 points with under two minutes to play.

Remaining on RPI’s schedule are four more games, two of which will be played against teams with records better than .500. The team's next two games, both home affairs are must-win games for the Engineers — the team takes on Union and Vassar, who both reside in the Liberty League's basement.

After that, things get much tougher for the Engineers. RPI will travel on Feb. 18 to take on first-place Hobart and then turn around the next day to play fourth-place Hamilton.

RPI looks like it will need to win three of its four remaining games to make the Liberty League tournament; as long as chalk holds, the Engineers should make the league's postseason without too much of a problem.

Skidmore (13-8, 7-3), Tied for Third Place

Meanwhile, in the wake of the team's loss to RPI, Skidmore has some work to do.

The Good News: Skidmore has three more games, only once of which is on the road; also, Skidmore will not play a team the rest of the season with a winning record.

The Bad News: Skidmore is tied for third with Hamilton, but fifth-place St. Lawrence is just one game back of both.

In all likelihood, Skidmore can clinch a playoff spot if the Thoroughbreds handle St. Lawrence when the two teams meet on Feb. 18 at Skidmore. If the Thoroughbreds beat St. Lawrence and win at least one other game, Skidmore is in to the tournament.
Check back on Sunday for an update on where the women of the Liberty League stand!

--Michael Kelly

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Could Jimmer and BYU snag No. 1 seed?

To answer the (self-posed) question as simply as possible: Yes.

In fact, it may be difficult for them to get anything but a top seed in this year’s Big Dance.

While national — and local — fans have spent a great deal of their college basketball-focused time checking BYU’s box scores to see how many points Jimmer Fredette can score on a given night, what has been overlooked is just how solid of a NCAA Tournament resume is being built out in Provo, Utah.

 Sure, it’s no secret that BYU is having a good year as a team, as evidence by the squad’s No. 8 billing in this week’s ESPN/USA Today poll.

(Note — as we go forward, a ranking written like “No. X” will refer to such team’s rank in the ESPN/USA Today poll; RPI rankings will always be directly referenced.)

But when we look at the math and statistics behind BYU’s season, the Cougars’ campaign gets even more impressive. Granted, BYU cannot afford to drop more than one more game in the regular season and they need to win their conference tournament to have a shot at a top seed, but consider the following …
  • BYU is the current owner of the NCAA’s top RPI. 
  • The Cougars are credited with having the nation’s ninth toughest schedule — and that ranking is bound to improve (more on this later). 
  • Jimmer and the Fredettes — shout out to The Saratogian’s Matt Donato for the moniker —  already own five wins against top-30 RPI teams, with a chance to garner at least one more such win in the regular season. For comparison’s sake, the Kansas Jayhawks own two such wins; undefeated Ohio State owns four such victories; and, Texas has notched three wins against top-30 competition. Meanwhile, Duke has not beaten a single top-30 team.
So, BYU already has a pretty nice resume, especially when compared with other top teams in the country. More importantly, for Jimmer-maniacs, BYU stands to get an added bump in its RPI ranking thanks to some early-season opponents mounting stronger than expected campaigns …

Utah State — BYU defeated Utah State on Nov. 17, 78-72

The Aggies are rolling. The WAC-leader is sitting at 22-2 (11-0 conference) and haven't seen an opponent come withing single digits of them yet in 2011. Utah State is up to No. 17 (RPI: 25) in the poll and will likely keep climbing as nobody in the WAC looks likely to be able to beat them. Every Utah State win helps out BYU's resume.

Vermont — BYU defeated Vermont (at the Civic Center in Glens Falls) on Dec. 8, 86-58

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the America East power, the Catamounts are sitting pretty at 19-5. While you won't see Vermont anywhere near the Top 25, the Catamounts look poised to finish with an RPI in the top 100. BYU played Vermont simply so Fredette could have his homecoming game, but that game has actually been a huge help to the Cougars' resume.

Arizona — BYU defeated Arizona on Dec. 11, 87-65.

While the Wildcats are a known national commodity, Arizona has not really been a player on the national scene in a few years and nothing much was expected from them this season, either. But, instead, the Wildcats (20-4, 9-2 Pac-10) are in first place in their conference and have pushed themselves up to No. 16 in the country (same as their RPI ranking).  

While BYU has certainly been helped by it's conference's strength — rival San Diego State is No. 6 nationally and has the fourth best RPI — these three above wins are the gifts that keep on giving for BYU. Arizona, Utah State and Vermont figure to keep winning and give BYU the chance to have wins over three potential conference champions.

Now, the final piece of BYU's top-seed puzzle: Geography.

There are essentially three teams — BYU, Kansas and Texas — currently fighting for the top seeds in the tournament's Southwest and West regions. As it stands, ESPN's Joe Lunardi is projecting Kansas to head West (Anaheim) as the top seed and Texas to grab top billing in the Southwest (San Antonio).
But Kansas and Texas are Big 12 conference mates; only one of them can win their conference tournament. It would be tough for me to see the NCAA's selection committee saying a Kansas or Texas squad coming off a conference tournament loss is more worthy of a top seed than a conference-champion BYU squad with a higher RPI, to boot.

Bottom line: If BYU does its part — lose no more than one game and win its conference tournament — Jimmer's bunch will be headlining March Madness as a top seed.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

UAlbany announces 2011 recruiting class

UAlbany announced its seven-player 2011 recruiting class on Thursday. Here is a quick breakdown of each player ...

Nick Beach, cornerback
Beach is from Charlotte, N.C. ... intercepted three passes and totaled 43 tackles in his senior season ... Mallard Creek, Beach's high school, made it to the state semifinal round this past football season ... a speedster, Beach competed on his high school's track and field team in the 400-meter dash.

Here is an article from the Charlotte Observer about Beach's final high school game; he had two interceptions in the contest.

Danny Book, offensive tackle
Book is from Harrisburg, N.C. ... he was a four-year starter as both an offensive lineman and a defensive end ... twice selected as a member of the All-South Piedmont 3A Conference team ... he's listed as 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds.

Here is an article from the Independent Tribune previewing Book's senior season. Book's coach mentions him as the glue to his offensive line.

Brad Bowen, offensive guard
Bowen is from Elma, N.Y. ... attended Iroquois High School ... twice named to the Class A South all-league squad ... stands at 6-foot-2, 270 pounds.

Here is a story from the West Seneca Bee in which Bowen is praised by his coach for his run-blocking.

Cory Connell, defensive end
Connell is from Ramsey, N.J. ... named to the All-Bergen County second team as a senior ... also played tight end and was the long snapper for Ramsey, his high school team ... had over 60 tackles in both his junior and senior season; 12 sacks in his high school career ... member of a state championship team.

Here is a link to a highlight package of Connell on YouTube.

Joe Hoback, center
Hoback is from Washington, Iowa ... comes to UAlbany after competing at the junior college level at Ellsworth Community College ... at Ellsworth, contributed to an offensive line that blocked for a running game that averaged over five yards per carry ... the largest player in the recruiting class, Hoback is 6-foot-2 and 290 pounds.

Here is a video of Hoback going through his workout regimen.

Mat LaDucer, linebacker
LaDucer is from Wyckoff, N.J. ... named to the All-Bergen County second team and the Newark Star-Ledger's second team ... totaled 65 tackles and five sacks during his senior season; made 42 tackles as a junior ... also played tight end in football and lacrosse in high school.

Here is an article from about an upset victory LaDucer's Ramapo scored during this past season.

Adam Pasnik, offensive guard
Pasnik is from Orchard Park, N.Y. ... along with Bowen, Pasnik is one of just two players in the class from New York ... named to the All-Upstate Football Weekly third team and the All-Monsignor Martin League AA first team ... competed in the shot put in high school.

Here is a link to an article about Pasnik signing his letter of intent to come play at UAlbany.

--Michael Kelly

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bracket Busters will help one of Albany and Siena

The matchups for the ESPN Bracket Buster — from now on, "BB" — schedule has been announced and, interestingly enough, the potential NCAA Tournament fates of both UAlbany and Siena are heavily intermingled.

Of the two men's basketball teams, only Siena is in this year's BB field — the Saints will play at home against Maine — and neither Albany nor Siena has a chance for an at-large bid to the Big Dance like the Saints did the past two years. Both teams will have to win their respective conference tournaments to make the this year's NCAA Tournament field, but the results of these BB games could go a long way toward deciding how an America East (Albany) or MAAC (Siena) school will fare in the tournament's seeding, in general. Between the two conferences, five America East schools and nine MAAC teams are in the BB field.

But here is where it gets interesting — of the five America East schools represented, four will play against teams from the MAAC.

Now, the importance of BB games is that it gives mid-majors a chance to get a nice out-of-conference win, which is good for both the winning team and said team's conference; for example, if an ACC school beats a Big East school — unlikely, right? — that would help out all ACC schools within the world of RPI, the mathematical formula used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee to help make decisions on the seeding of teams.

With that said, those four games between America East and MAAC schools become very important for each respective conference; if one conference can win three or all four of those games, it could help substantially with that conference's tournament selection.

For example, right now the projected America East representative (Maine) is listed as a 16-seed in the latest "Bracketology" by ESPN's Joe Lunardi; meanwhile, the current MAAC representative (Fairfield) is listed as a 14-seed. These low rankings are largely due to the RPI associated with each team's conference; out of 31 conferences (and Independents), the America East is rated the 25th best conference and the MAAC is viewed as the 16th best conference.

If either conference is able to win a majority of the four games they play during BB, that conference's RPI will surely pick up and so might the eventual seed of that conference's tournament winner. Right now, Albany and Siena are both in the middle of the pack in their respective conferences, so NCAA Tournament dreams for either squad are not out of the question.

Here are the four matchups between the two conferences, with each team's current RPI* in parentheses and the America East schools in bold ...

New Hampshire (252) at Marist (306)
Manhattan (303) at Stony Brook (277)
Canisius (205) at Boston University (204)
Maine (139) at Siena (178)

Looking at those matchups from a conference perspective, the MAAC has a lot to gain from these games, despite being the higher-rated conference. The MAAC schools in these four games all have lower RPIs, meaning that the MAAC, as a whole, has more to gain with each win.

*There are 345 ranked teams in the RPI; the list can be found here.

For a different point of view, check out this article which basically argues that these BB games are completely meaningless. I disagree with him, but he does make a good point about needing more schools from "large" conferences in these games.

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