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College Basketball Notes

   by Larry Ness - 02/19/2010

Kansas held its No. 1 ranking this past Monday (Jayhawks were a solid preseason No. 1 and have owned the No. 1 spot in 11 of 14 regular season polls) and that night picked up a hard-earned 59-54 win at College Station over Texas A&M. It was the Aggies' first home loss of the season and moved Kansas to 11-0 in the Big 12. The Jayhawks are looking to nail down a sixth straight Big 12 regular season crown which would match legendary Kansas head coach Phog Allen, who won or shared six consecutive Missouri Valley titles from 1921-27. Kansas is also trying to join its 2001-02 squad as the only teams to finish unbeaten in Big 12 play. The Jayhawks own the longest active home winning streak in college hoops (56 in a row).


Kansas was the only Division I school to finish unbeaten in conference play back in that 2001-02 season and over the past eight seasons just 19 schools have managed that feat. The most schools to stay unbeaten throughout their respective seasons in any one year has been three and Kansas is one of only four schools still unbeaten in conference play heading into this weekend. Joining the Jayhawks are No. 18 Butler (17-0 in the Horizon) and Murray State (16-0 in the OVC). Those schools have both won 16 straight overall games, the longest active winning streak in college hoops. Sam Houston State (11-0 in the Southland) is the fourth remaining conference unbeaten.


The Jayhawks own the longest active home winning streak in college basketball (56 in a row) and will host Colorado (12-13 / 3-8) on Saturday. Sam Houston State will play at Texas-San Antonio (15-9 / 5-6) on Saturday while both Butler and Murray State will put their 16-game winning streaks on the line this weekend but not their unbeaten conference records. That's because both the Bulldogs and Racers will be participating in ESPN's eighth annual BracketBusters extravaganza, a two-day college basketball event.


The BracketBusters concept provides schools outside the "Big Six" leagues an opportunity to play non-conference opponents less than a month before Selection Sunday. Each conference selects its participating teams before the season and the matchups for the event are determined by ESPN in conjunction with the conferences. Ninety-eight schools representing 14 conferences will play a total of 49 games, of which 11 will be televised on the ESPN family of networks. The 22 teams represent 10 conferences, including seven 2009 NCAA Tournament participants (Akron, Butler, Morgan State, Northern Iowa, Siena, Utah State and Virginia Commonwealth).


The marquee TV games are Old Dominion (CAA) at Northern Iowa (MVC) on Friday at 7:00 ET plus four games on Saturday. Morgan State of the MEAC will play at Murray State of the OVC at 12 noon ET while Siena (22-5) visits No. 18 Butler at 2:00 ET. Both the Racers and Bulldogs will look to extend their winning streaks to 17 in a row. Akron (MAC) and Virginia Commonwealth (CAA), both NCAA teams last year, play at 4:00 ET and a long day ends at midnight ET when Wichita State (MVC) visits Utah State of the WAC.


ESPN has tried to make these BracketBuster games seem significant but truthfully, they have been more hype than substance. Few if any schools have made any real 'hay' out of a BracketBuster win, although I will acknowledge that a number of schools have cost themselves by losing one of them. I'd argue that a number of schools "had better win" this weekend or their at-large chances are all but over. In comparison, I couldn't make a case for even one school securing an at-large berth with a win. As so often is the case in college basketball, coaches are a bigger story than the actual players or individual schools. Here's a few notes on the top-five TV matchups.


Old Dominion at Northern Iowa (Friday at 7:00 ET): The CAA has sent multiple teams to the NCAA tourney before and at 21-7 overall (13-3 in CAA play), the Monarchs are hoping their 61-57 win at Georgetown on December 19 plus a win here in Cedar Rapids over 23-3 Northern Iowa (Panthers are unranked by the AP but are 24th in the coaches' poll) would be enough to get them at-large consideration if they are unable to win the CAA tourney March 5-8 in Richmond. ODU is the only CAA school with any realistic chance at an at-large bid. Northern Iowa went to three straight NCAA tournaments under Greg McDermott from 2004-06 (lost in the first round each time), getting at-large bids in both 2005 and '06. Ben Jacobson took over as head coach when McDermott left after the '06 season and after back-to-back 18-win seasons, led Northern Iowa to the MVC tourney title last year (just second in school history) and the school's fifth NCAA appearance. The Panthers should be an at-large selection even if they don't win the MVC tourney ("Arch Madness" in St Louis from March 4-7) this year but a home loss sure won't help their resume.


Morgan State at Murray State (Saturday at 12 noon ET): Morgan State was rolling along unbeaten in MEAC play until losing 71-68 at South Carolina St on Feb 15. The Bears will take a 20-8 overall mark (11-1 in the MEAC) into Saturday's game at Murray State. The Racers are 25-3 (16-0 in the OVC), one of just four remaining conference unbeatens and along with Butler, own the nation's longest active winning streak at 16 in a row. However, both schools know very well that while this game is for conference pride, neither team is a serious at-large contender. Morgan State earned its first-ever NCAA tournament bid last year by beating Norfolk St 83-69 in the MEAC title game. The win also marked the return to the national stage for head coach Todd Bozeman, the center of an NCAA scandal before being fired at California-Berkeley in 1996. He was out of coaching for eight years before resurrecting his career at Morgan State and Bozeman's team is now on the verge of a second straight NCAA appearance. Murray State is no stranger to NCAA appearances, having made 13 in its history but none under current head coach Bill Kennedy. Mick Cronin (now head coach at Cincinnati) took the Racers to the "Big Dance" in 2004 and 2006 but Kennedy's teams have fallen short each of the last three seasons. Kennedy and the Racers are due this year. Kennedy's first collegiate head coaching job came at Centenary and he took over at Southeastern Louisiana hired in 1999. In his sixth and final season at Hammond, La (2005) his team went 24-9, winning both the conference regular season and tournament titles while getting the Lions to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history, where it lost to Oklahoma State 63-50. That team won a school-record 24 games that year and the program hasn't won more than 17 games in any season since (team is 14-10 this year). Coaches matter in college hoops and with 25 wins already (plus that 16-game winning streak), this could be a special season for Kennedy and the Racers. The school's lone NCAA win in 13 appearances came in 1988 when it beat No. 3-seeded North Carolina St before losing 61-58 to Kansas, which led by Danny Manning, would go on to capture the national title. That's something to shoot for.


Siena at Butler (Saturday at 2:00 ET): What a game this is! Siena's been to two straight NCAA tournaments and won first round games both times. The Saints lost their unbeaten conference season back on Feb 12 when they lost 87-74 at Niagara and will take an overall 22-5 (15-1 in the MAAC) record into Saturday's game with No. 18 Butler. The Bulldogs come in tied with Murray State for the longest active winning streak (16) and as one of four remaining conference unbeatens (17-0 in the Horizon). Butler is 24-4 overall but a money-burning 11-17 ATS. The Bulldogs have made nine NCAA appearances (all but one since 1997), including Sweet 16 'visits' in both 2003 and 2007 under Todd Lickliter (now at Iowa). Lickliter left after the 2007 season and Brad Stevens was given his first-ever coaching job. Look what he's done, already. He became the third-youngest head coach in NCAA Division I history to lead a team to 30 wins in a season in his first season (2007-08) and on Feb 5, 2009, Stevens became the sixth head coach in NCAA history to reach 50 wins in 56 games or less. He's led the Bulldogs to two straight NCAA appearance and enters this game 80-14 (.851) in his two-plus seasons. All that's missing is an NCAA win. Siena's head coach Fran McCaffery's resume is missing very little. He has reenergized Siena's program in his four-plus years at the helm and taken it to new heights. McCaffery's Saints won 20 games in his second season (lost in MAAC championship game) and the last two years have won both the MAAC's regular season and tournament titles. Siena crushed 4th-seeded Vanderbilt 83-62 in the 2008 NCAA tournament and last season beat Ohio State 74-72 in double overtime in one of the tournament's most exciting games. In his fifth year at Loudonville, NY, McCaffery owns a 157-49 (.762) mark heading into Saturday's game. No one is surprised. McCaffery came to Siena from UNC-Greensboro, where he posted a 90-87 record in six seasons, leading the Spartans to their second-ever NCAA bid in 2001. McCaffery was the nation's youngest Division I head coach when he was hired in 1986 at Lehigh (26-years-old). He capped his three-year tenure with the Engineers with a 21-win season and an NCAA berth in 1988, making him (at the time) the youngest head coach to reach the NCAA Tournament. When McCaffery led the Saints to the 2008 NCAA tourney, he became just the 31st coach to take three different programs to the "Big Dance" and he is the first to do so with three programs from one-bid leagues (conference's that sent just one team the year his program advanced). We NEED both of these school's (and coaches) in this year's tourney and a Siena win is a must vs Butler for possible at-large consideration if the Saints fail to win the MAAC tourney (Butler's a 'lock' for an at-large bid but Siena is hardly in a similar position).


Akron at Virginia Commonwealth (Saturday at 4:00 ET): Keith Dambrot has now led Akron to five straight 20-win seasons (Zips are currently 20-7 / 10-3 in the MAC) and last season, the school's second-ever NCAA tournament appearance (first was under Bob Huggins back in 1986). The Zips are well aware that the MAC hasn't received an at-large bid since 1999 and this year will be no different, so a win here matters little when it comes to Akron's at-large chances because the Zips won't get to the NCAA tourney without winning the MAC tourney title (March 11-13 in Cleveland). I've focused on coaches quite a bit in this piece and Dambrot owns quite a story. He replaced Charlie Coles as coach of Central Michigan for the 1991-1992 season. However, he only lasted two seasons, and was fired for making a controversial comment before a game (he used the "N" word). The incident at Central Michigan essentially blackballed Dambrot from college coaching. However, he became the head coach at St. Vincent–St. Mary HS in Akron, Ohio in 1998, where in the last two years of his tenure LeBron James was a member of the team (you may know that name?). Dambrot has made quite 'resurrection.' VCU made NCAA appearances in 2007 (beat Duke) and 2009 (lost 65-64 to UCLA) under Anthony Grant (nine all-time), who has moved on to Alabama. Shaka Smart, who like Grant was an assistant under Billy Donovan at Florida, is the current head coach of the Rams (18-7 / 10-6), who won't be 'dancing' without winning the CAA tourney.


Wichita State at Utah State (Saturday at 12 midnight ET): Wichita State's last NCAA appearance came in 2006 (school's eighth all-time) and the school was thrilled when Gregg Marshall was hired in April of 2007, having previously coached at Winthrop for nine seasons. Marshall led the Eagles to seven NCAA tournament appearances and transformed a previously undistinguished program into a mid-major powerhouse. Marshall became the first coach in the history of the Big South Conference to have his team go undefeated in conference games in 2006-07 (14-0) and that same year also became the first Big South coach to win an NCAA first round tournament game by defeating sixth-seeded Notre Dame 74-64. The Shockers went just 11-20 and 17-17 in Marshall's first two seasons in Wichita but this year's team opened 16-2. However, WSU has won just six of its last 10 and at 22-6 (11-5) is a long shot to receive an at-large bid. A win at Logan, Utah could help but a loss would all but eliminate the Shockers from any serious at-large consideration. The Aggies enter this game at 21-6, including 11-2 in WAC play. They surely aren't counting on an at-large bid but like WSU, know a loss hurts more than a win helps. Stew Morrill took the head coaching job at Utah State prior to the 1998-99 season (came from Colorado St). He went 15-13 that first year but over the last 10 seasons (not counting this year) posted a 252-77 (.766) record. The Aggies have made 10 straight postseason appearances (six NCAA bids) but the school's attention-grabbing 77-68 overtime win against Ohio State in 2001, is its lone NCAA victory under Morrill. However, with Morrill at the helm, the Aggies entered this season as one of only three Division I schools to have won at least 23 games in each of the last ten seasons (Gonzaga and Kansas are the others). He'll make it 11 straight seasons with at least 23 wins before this year is over but another NCAA bid most likely will hinge on the team winning the WAC tourney, being played March 11-13 in Reno, Nevada.


I'll be back early next week with a 'state of the union' on the 2009-10 college basketball season.


Good luck, Larry

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