Which team is under the most pressure in this final week of the regular season?
Patrick Snow: I think the West Virginia Mountaineers are under a ton of pressure if they want to make a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Bob Huggins’ club is currently tied for ninth in the rough Big East, and WVU has not been playing quality ball down the stretch. After starting the season at 15–5 overall and 5–2 in league play, the Mountaineers have lost seven of their last nine games. Those seven defeats include four home games, and WVU suffered a very tough loss last Friday after blowing an 11-point halftime lead against Marquette. Seniors Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones have led the team all season but have been inconsistent lately. WVU travels to South Florida on Saturday to face a Bulls club that has been very tough this season. A quality road win in the last regular-season game could be the difference-maker in getting the Mountaineers off the bubble, instead of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Huggins’ return to Morgantown.
Mitch Light: There’s a bunch of options here, but I will go with Northwestern, which is scratching and clawing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The Wildcats are currently 17–11 overall and 7–9 in the Big Ten with an RPI of 43. They close the regular season with a home date with Ohio State on Wednesday and a tricky road game at Iowa on Saturday. If they beat Ohio State, they will be a virtual lock for the Tournament. If not, however, Bill Carmody’s club will head to Iowa City in must-win mode against an Iowa team that beat Indiana and Wisconsin in its last two home games. There’s no denying that this will be a stressful week for everyone associated with Northwestern basketball.
What conference tournament are you most looking forward to?
Patrick Snow: I am very excited for the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament this weekend. We all know the success that the CAA has had in recent NCAA Tournaments, producing two Final Four teams over the last six years — George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011. Even though three league squads (Drexel, VCU and George Mason) have 23 wins or more, I’m not sure that multiple teams will be invited to this season’s March Madness. That fact will make for a very exciting and pressure-packed league tourney. Three other CAA teams — Old Dominion, Delaware and Georgia State — have double-digit win totals in league play, so it should be wide open in Richmond. Drexel is the top seed on the strength of 17 consecutive victories, while fifth-place Delaware has won eight straight CAA games. VCU and George Mason will also be tough outs, as the CAA tourney figures to produce an electric atmosphere with multiple teams trying to reach their NCAA Tournament goal.
Mitch Light: I think the Missouri Valley Tournament in St. Louis — or Arch Madness, as it’s called — will be fun to watch. The league has two very good teams at the top in Wichita State (16–2) and Creighton (14–4) and then incredible balance with five teams finishing in a tie for third place at 9–9 in the league. Wichita State is the obvious favorite, but Creighton boasts the Valley’s best player in sophomore forward Doug McDermott, the son of head coach Greg McDermott. Looking for a sleeper? Indiana State was a bit of a disappointment this season with an 8–10 league record, but Greg Lansing’s club returns most of the key players from last year’s team that won the MVC Tournament title.
Nathan Rush: The SEC Tournament is must-see TV. Kentucky is the prohibitive favorite to win the national championship. But can the Wildcats cruise to the SEC crown, as they have in each of John Calipari's first two seasons at UK? If they are tested in a do-or-die tournament setting, how will Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the young Cats react? Also, the SEC has two of the more intriguing NCAA Tournament wild cards. Both Florida and Vanderbilt have the firepower to make a run in March. But if the Gators and Commodores don't get hot at the right time, either (or both) could easily stagger early in the Dance. UF and VU are hit or miss. But which is it? Then there's Alabama, a well-coached club that can stifle just about any offense on the right night. There is plenty of NCAA Tournament insight to be gleaned from the SEC Tournament — which, coincidentally, is in New Orleans, the site of this year's Final Four.
Will Vandy be able to take down a tough SEC foe on the road?
While Vanderbilt seemed to be approaching conference play with an undeniably improved focus compared to that of their preseason play, a mental lapse and lackadaisical efforts combined cost the ‘Dores a clutch SEC victory Tuesday night against Arkansas. However, the Commodores look to bounce back against the (No. 11 ESPN/USA Today, No. 12 AP) Florida Gators this Saturday.
After kicking off conference play with a disappointing loss to Tennessee Jan. 7, the Gators have regained their swagger and dashed through conference play on a 6-0 winning streak.
Final Four picks, Kentucky, the point guard, style of play and more with CBS' Clark Kellogg.
Athlon Sports’ Braden Gall had a chance to sit down with CBS College Basketball analyst Clark Kellogg to preview the 2011-2012 NCAA Basketball season. You can follow Braden on twitter at @AthlonBraden.
Braden Gall: The college basketball season is upon us, but first, the Capital One Cup is awarded annually to each of the best men’s and women’s college athletic programs. Talk about your involvement in the Capital One Cup.
According to the numbers, Vanderbilt was the worst team in the nation last season relative to its conference. The Commodores were outgained in their eight SEC games by an average of 245.4 yards and outscored by an average of 21.0 points.
Enter James Franklin.
With two games still to play, Vanderbilt has already won more games this season (five) than the last two seasons combined (four). And there has been nothing fluky about the Dores’ 5–5 mark; in fact, Vanderbilt, with three SEC losses by five points or less, is a few plays away from being 7–3 or even 8–2.
This season, Vanderbilt has only been outgained in SEC games by 31.5 yards (an improvement off over 200 yards per game) and outscored by 1.7 points (an improvement of 19.3 points per game).
The most dramatic difference has been on the offensive side of the ball. The Dores, for the first time in several years, feature legitimate playmakers at the skill positions. In four starts, quarterback Jordan Rodgers has averaged 232.5 yards passing and 52.8 yards rushing. Junior running back Zac Stacy, healthy for the first time since his freshman season, has rushed for 891 yards and nine touchdowns, and he leads the league (min. 80 carries) with a 6.5-yard average. Sophomore wide receiver Jordan Matthews has been on a tear of late with 21 catches for 452 yards and three TDs in the last three games.
“They made the quarterback switch (from Larry Smith to Rodgers), and they do everything,” said Tennessee coach Derek Dooley. “You can’t cheat against them, meaning every time they do this, they are going to do that. You got to go play. And what’s interesting is they really find a way to generate big plays, as good as anybody. I think Arkansas is the only team with more big plays than they’ve had.”
To Dooley’s point, Vanderbilt ranks second in the SEC (to Arkansas) in plays of 30 yards or more and leads the league in plays of 40 yards or more.
Last week, in a 38–8 win over Kentucky, the Commodores rolled up 410 yards of offense. Over the last four games, they have averaged 444.8 yards and twice in that stretch had over 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same game.
And it’s with this momentum that Vanderbilt heads to Knoxville — as a one-point favorite — to take on a Tennessee team that is 0–6 in the SEC for the first time ever.
“We feel real confident,” said sophomore defensive end Walker May. “We feel good, loose, ready to go. It's so fun. We are looking forward to this weekend, not looking back on the Kentucky win.”
The Commodores need to beat either Tennessee this week or Wake Forest next week to become bowl-eligible for the first times since 2008 and only the second time since the 1982 season.
Vanderbilt last defeated Tennessee in 2005, when Jay Cutler was a junior. Prior to that, the Dores had not won in Knoxville since 1975.
“I am not too familiar with the rivalry,” said Rodgers, a California native who enrolled at Vanderbilt last year after two seasons in junior college. “I know it has been pretty lopsided between the two schools.”
Rodgers believes his team is peaking at the right time of the season.
“With how much we’ve improved, I think it is a good time for us to be playing anybody,” he said. “I feel like we've gotten to the point where we’re confident that we can get a win against anybody we face, if we play how we know we should and execute how we know we should. So, for us right now, we go into every game thinking that we should win, that we should be able to compete. So, right now it's a good time for us to be playing anybody.”
AROUND THE SEC
• Florida scored a total of two touchdowns in its last three road games, losses at LSU, Auburn and South Carolina.
• South Carolina won six SEC games for the first time since joining the league in 1992.
• Arkansas held Tennessee to seven points in last week’s win in Fayetteville. It was the first time the Hogs have held an SEC team to single digits since beating Ole Miss, 44–8, in October 2007.
• Ole Miss is giving up a league-worst 6.67 yards per play against SEC competition. Alabama, the league leader, is giving up 3.5 yards per play.
• Alabama’s Eddie Lacy is averaging 12.2 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and 9.9 yards in the second half.
• Georgia has allowed 16 points or less is six of its eight wins this season.
• Auburn’s 195 yards in the loss to Georgia were the second-fewest of the Gus Malzahn era. Two years ago, the Tigers had 193 yards in a loss to LSU.
• LSU has given up four total touchdowns in six SEC games.
• Tennessee is converting 66.7 percent (42 of 63) on third down in non-conference games but only 24.7 percent (20 of 81) in league games.
Dick Vitale sat down with us for an exclusive interview to discuss college hoops
There’s no greater ambassador and evangelist for college basketball than Dick Vitale, who was on the mic for ESPN’s first college hoops broadcast on Dec. 5, 1979 (DePaul 90, Wisconsin 77) and has been sharing his passion for the game with appreciative audiences ever since. Athlon Sports sat down for some preseason analysis, banter and bombast in an exclusive Q&A with Vitale
John Jenkins leads experienced, talented Commodores team hoping to make deep NCAA Tournament run
There was no press conference. No proclamations on Twitter. Nothing fancy. Just a simple press release. On April 20, Vanderbilt sent an email to announce that Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor would be back in school for the 2011-12 season.