Handicapping New England's NCAA field


Handicapping New England's NCAA field

By Mary Paoletti

Just two more weeks remain in college basketball's regular-season schedule. The conference tournaments set to follow will decide one thing immediately: Whose ticket's getting punched to The Dance.

March Madness.

Of 10 New England teams, five of them play in conferences with automatic bids to be won. A few fortunate squads might not need a title to gain entry and can play well enough to earn an at-large bid. Most, however, are not so lucky.

So who's got what it takes? A team-by-team look at the region's NCAA chances:
Boston College Eagles
Atlantic Coast Conference
Overall Record: 13-13
Conference RecordStanding: 4-89th
Ratings Percentage IndexStrength of Schedule Rank: 104 31
The Good: Two wins against conference foe Clemson on Jan. 9 and Jan. 26.
The Bad: An 84-80 loss to St. Joseph's on Nov. 20. A 52-51 defeat by Maine on Jan. 2.

The Story: Even if the ACC pulls in seven teams to the dance, Boston College will probably not be one of them. The struggles of this season's Eagles range from inexperience to what head coach Al Skinner once called a "disturbing" lack of effort. Conference wins over Clemson, Miami and a struggling UNC team did show flashes of hustle and intensity. But too often, BC has gotten behind in games and spent most of 40 minutes trying to play catch-up. This characteristic is not one of a team that's built for a hard-fought tourney run. The Eagles are certainly capable of pulling out a win in the last two weeks of their schedule. They could also surprise a team, as when they put up a valiant fight before losing 66-63 to Duke on Feb. 6, in the elevated atmosphere of the ACC tournament. Next year will be a better time for the Boston College to spread it's wings in the conference and on the national scene.

Last up: vs. Virginia Tech (21-5) on Feb. 24, at Georgia Tech (18-9) on Feb. 27, vs. Virginia (14-11) on Mar. 3, at NC State (15-3) on Mar. 7.

Boston University Terriers
America East Conference
Overall Record: 16-12
Conference RecordStanding: 10-54th
RPISOS Rank: 165199
The Good: A 69-64 win over Northeastern on Nov. 25.
The Bad: A 69-59 loss to George Washington on Nov. 17.

The Story: When having a good, but not great season, Boston University is at the disadvantage of playing in the America East. This conference sends just one team to the NCAAs. So while BU sits just 2 12 games behind the league leader, the fact that it's last five losses have been to the top three teams in the standings indicates tough territory. The Terriers will ride a three-game winning streak into the last game of the regular season, a rematch with Maine. BU dropped a 56-54 decision in that late January contest and is in good shape for revenge. But enduring the drive throughout the entire AE tournament to capture the at-large-bid? Not this Terriers team.

Connecticut Huskies
Big East Conference
Overall Record: 17-11
Conference RecordStanding: 7-88th
RPISOS Rank: 452
The Good: Wins against then-No. 1 Texas (Jan. 23), at then-No. 3 Villanova (Feb. 15), and vs. No. 7 West Virginia (Feb. 22).
The Bad: A 68-63 loss to Michigan on Jan. 17. An 81-66 loss at Providence on Jan. 27.

The Story: It's been a strange season for the Huskies. This team appears to rise to the level of its competition. Wins against Texas, 'Nova, and West Virginia prove that Connecticut can close out top teams. And games against No. 5 Duke and No. 2 Kentucky, though losses, showcased a UConn team that can put even the best out-of-conference talent on the run. Yet Providence and Marquette were able to dismantle Connecticut quite completely. The Friars dominated the boards, shredded the defense, and forced Connecticut into turnovers and bad shot selection. It's in this back-and-forth battle between lethal efficiency and self-sabotage that has put the Huskies onto the bubble. This team won't win the Big East title. But winning these last three games and at least one league tournament game is possible, and that should be enough for an at-large ticket to postseason play. If that level of execution is unmanageable for UConn, the Huskies will have to hope that the Selection Committee takes head coach Jim Calhoun's five game medical leave and the team's strong SOS rank into consideration.

Last up: vs. Louisville (18-9) on Feb. 28, at Notre Dame (17-10) on Mar. 3, at USF (16-10) on Mar. 6.

Maine Black Bears
America East Conference
Overall Record: 18-9
Conference RecordStanding: 10-43rd
RPISOS Rank: 136254
The Good: A 52-51 defeat of Boston College on Jan. 2. Wins over tough conference foes Stony Brook (Jan. 16) and BU (Jan. 27).
The Bad: Losses to Norfolk St. (Nov. 16), Brown (Nov. 22), and UMBC (Jan. 30).

The Story: After finishing 9-21 last season, UMaine has experienced some unexpected success in 2010. The Black Bears went .500 over their first 10 games before upsetting Boston College in Chestnut Hill. They then set upon the America East portion of their schedule with determination and posted a 6-1 start in league play. But for all of the program's improvements, it will not add a conference championship to the list. Will the Black Bears continue their surprisingly good run? Yes. This team once flexed its talent enough to lead Connecticut at the break in late December. Maine ended up losing that game as expected -- by 17 points -- which affirms why they will not win the America East title. The Black Bears are better but not yet ready to be the best.

Last up: vs. Albany (7-22) on Feb. 24, at BU (16-12) on Feb. 27.

Massachusetts Minutemen
Atlantic 10 Conference
Overall Record: 10-17
Conference RecordStanding: 4-911th
RPISOS Rank: 19177
The Good: A 73-72 win over Memphis on Dec. 19. An 84-80 OT win over Duquesne on Feb. 11.
The Bad: Losses to UCF (Nov. 13), Davidson (Dec. 30), La Salle (Jan. 10), St. Bonaventure (Jan. 20), and George Washington (Feb. 17).

The Story: The Atlantic 10 could break precedent and send more than four teams to the Tournament for the first time since 1998. Unfortunately, UMass won't be invited. The Minutemen have had a lackluster season this year, one that was perhaps expected. Head coach Derek Kellogg starts a freshman and a transfer on a super young squad that has just one senior. As a result, Kellogg has to do a lot of coaching about things like defense and shot selection. Upsets against teams like Memphis and Duquesne are possible when his kids can put it all together. It's just not enough. The top five teams in the A-10 are separated by 2 12 games and UMass is a full seven out. To gain consideration, the Minutemen would have to finish out perfectly, upset URI, and go deep into the conference tournament. That won't happen.
Last up: At Dayton (18-8) on Feb. 27, at La Salle (11-15) on Mar. 3, vs. URI (20-6) on Mar. 6.

New Hampshire Wildcats
America East Conference
Overall Record: 11-15
Conference RecordStanding: 5-97th
RPISOS Rank: 248264
The Good: A 75-56 win over Vermont on Jan. 27.
The Bad: Losses to Army (Dec. 22), Santa Clara (Jan. 2), Binghamton (Jan. 30) and a set to Hartford (Jan. 16 and Feb. 6).
The Story: Bill Herrion's Wildcats have slipped again. Their .500 finish in conference play last year was a step forward but now, at 5-9, they've fallen back into the old familiar mediocrity. Four starters returned for 2009-10, including defensive ace Tyrone Conley and warrior Colbey Santos. It wasn't enough. This will be another year when the perennial America East powers will fight for the automatic bid while the others fall by the wayside. New Hampshire will be by the wayside.

Last Up: Vs. UMBC (3-25) on Feb. 24, vs. Stony Brook (20-7) on Feb. 28.

Northeastern Huskies
Colonial Athletic Conference
Overall Record: 18-10
Conference RecordStanding: 13-3T-1st
RPISOS Rank: 7089
The Good: A 64-61 win over Utah State on Nov. 21. A 70-67 win over Wright State on Nov. 28. The Huskies beat Kent State, 61-58, on Dec. 30.
The Bad: A Nov. 25 loss to BU (69-64). A pair of defeats by Drexel, 49-47 on Dec. 5 and 61-48 on Jan. 27. NU also lost it's BracketBuster game to Louisiana Tech on Feb. 20, 70-67.

The Story: So it's Northeastern representing New England as the only school at the top of its league. True, the Huskies do not have complete control of their destiny as they are tied with Old Dominion in the standings. But it's safe to assume the Huskies will win their last two games en route to the conference tournament, which is where things are going to start getting tricky. It's been Drexel, not ODU, which has given Northeastern the most trouble. William & Mary, VCU, and George Mason are all capable of knocking NU out of the running, though. Luckily, this conference should receive an at-large bid as well as an automatic. If Northeastern finishes out the season with two wins and only loses later in CAC league games, then the Huskies should still make the tournament. This is an experienced, cohesive team that communicates well both on and off the court. Hopefully the Huskies know where their dancing shoes are.

Last Up: vs. Hofstra (16-13) on Feb. 23, at GMU (16-12)on Feb. 27

Providence College Friars
Big East Conference
Overall Record: 12-14
Conference RecordStanding: 4-1014th
RPISOS Rank: 10929
The Good: A 76-72 win over Northeastern on Dec. 1. An 81-66 demolition of UConn on Jan. 27.
The Bad: An 84-75 loss to Alabama on Nov. 20. An 82-77 loss to Boston College on Nov. 28.

The Story: A year of growing pains is more difficult to get through in the Big East than perhaps anywhere else in the nation. Providence lost four starters and five of its top seven scorers from last year's squad. This has left the Friars with a roster full of freshman, transfers, and former redshirts. It's a tough break. The conference is stacked with competitors, but will not likely send more than seven teams to the tournament. Right now Providence is drowning in a six-game losing streak without any help on the way. Of the four remaining games for the Friars, two of the opponents are nationally ranked. And those playoffs at Madison Square Garden? Five teams participating are currently ranked in the top-25. Providence should hope that whichever team dispatches of them does it quickly.

Last Up: vs. Syracuse (25-2) on Feb. 23, at USF (16-10) on Feb. 27, at Pittsburgh (21-6) on Mar. 4, vs. Seton Hall (15-10) on Mar. 6.

Rhode Island Rams
Atlantic 10 Conference
Overall Record: 20-6
Conference RecordStanding: 8-56th
RPISOS Rank: 2661
The Good: Wins over Northeastern (Dec. 10), Oklahoma State (Jan. 2), Duquesne (Jan 20), and Dayton (Jan. 26).
The Bad: Losses to the A-10's top four teams: Richmond, Temple, Xavier, and St. Louis.

The Story: Rhode Island should be pleased that it followed up last season with another solid one in 2009-10. Because of tremendous depth in the backcourt and a broad scoring spread, URI started it's season on fire, losing just three games out of the first 23. Things have since cooled off a bit. The Rams started February by losing three straight games to top teams in the Atlantic 10: Richmond, Temple and St. Louis. The last three of the regular season shouldn't give the Rams too much trouble, but the time for winning that automatic bid has come and gone. Rhode Island can still see some postseason action, however. If the A-10 does in fact get five teams selected to the field of 65, then a continued strong performance from URI should get them that fifth bid.
Last Up: at St. Bonaventure (11-4) on Feb. 27, vs. Charlotte (18-8) on Mar. 3, at Massachusetts (10-17) on Mar. 6.

Vermont Catamounts
America East Conference
Overall Record: 21-8
Conference RecordStanding: 11-32nd
RPISOS Rank: 130303
The Good: A 58-57 win at Buffalo on Nov. 15. A win at the RAC vs. Rutgers, 77-71, on Nov. 22.
The Bad: Losses to Loyola (Nov. 13), Delaware (Dec. 20), Binghamton (Jan. 24), and UNH (Jan. 27).

The Story: There could be a great battle in the America East for the conference crown. Head coach Mike Lonergran has gotten the standout season from senior Maurice Joseph that he wanted. And when supplemented by Marqus Blakely and Evan Field, the Catamounts have worked their way just one game behind in the league standings. UVM is currently one loss, both in conference and overall, behind Stony Brook. The next game between these two teams could foreshadow whose outstretched fingers are actually closer to the America East title. If Vermont does advance to the National Tournament, though, the Cats could be in for a rude awakening. A 303 strength of schedule rating does not have good implications for how UVM would stack up against a highly seeded, out-of-conference opponent. Losing to Providence by 42 points isn't good for confidence, either. Hopefully for Vermont, the journey is more important than the destination.
Last Up: at Stony Brook (20-7) on Feb. 24, vs. Binghamton (12-17) on Feb. 28.

Mary Paoletti is on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Will time off in September benefit Brady down the stretch?


Will time off in September benefit Brady down the stretch?

FOXBORO -- As far as Tom Brady is concerned, there were no silver linings to Deflategate or the month he spent in exile from his team. Don’t try to put whipped cream on that particular mound of fecal material.
Found that out Wednesday when I gingerly asked Brady whether he’s ever felt this good in mid-October.
“I feel good,” said Brady. “I felt good at this time last year though, too. From one year to the next, I’d say I’ve become pretty efficient with how I get ready to play.
So the missing of September?
“I always wish I could be out there playing,” he pointed out. “I’d much rather be playing than not playing, but it is what it is. I feel good at this point. But like I said, I felt good last year, I felt good the year before that, and I think every year at this time of year just based on the right routine and kind of doing the right things to get yourself feeling good.”
The line of questioning was prompted by two things.
First, Brady’s played 256 games -- regular season and playoffs -- since 2000. His 31 postseason starts are the most in NFL history and he’ll add to it this year. No quarterback’s ever had a schedule like Brady’s for as long as Brady and the punishment he takes (witness Denver last January) would have destroyed the Montanas and Mannings with whom he’s compared. The extended layoff had to do a body good. And the level at which Brady’s playing right now -- and may continue to because he’s fresher -- can only mean good things.
Second, all the band, resistance and quickness work Brady does will never make him fast. But it has seemed to make him more decisive and determined that -- when he does opt to run -- the body will cooperate and arrive at the appointed destination without disaster.
Sunday, Brady both bought time for completions and embarked on short-range scrambles that picked up key first downs.
When Brady talked last week about making Pittsburgh “defend every inch of the field,” Brady scooting into open areas was a perfect illustration of that.
“If there are two or three plays a game that you can make just moving the pocket, or sliding, or buying your receivers more time, or scrambling on third-and-two, it’s just one more thing that they have to defend,” said Brady. “We made – Jimmy [Garoppolo] made a bunch of those when he was in there early. Jacoby [Brissett] made some.
“It’s nice to be able to do that because I think it’s a little discouraging for a defense when they feel like they’ve got you covered or they’ve got the right call on it, and all of the sudden – I mean, I don’t think they’re preparing for me scrambling for first downs. I know they’re not working on that. They’re working on stopping Gronk [Rob Gronkowski], and stopping Julian [Edelman], and Danny, and Hogs [Chris Hogan], LeGarrette [Blount] and James [White]. That’s not one of their top 10 things on their hit list, so I think it’s pretty discouraging when it happens and hopefully we can keep it going.”
At this point, Brady’s running has to at least be in the scouting report.
Although Rex Ryan isn’t buying.
“I’d like to see him do it more often,” said Ryan when asked if the scrambling of Brady was becoming annoying. “Put him in the option, that’s one thing that doesn’t scare you much, you live with that. What scares you is when he lets the ball go. He’s able to pick up a few first downs, But I think we may have the edge in running ability this week. I may go out there and make that bold statement. They may be worried about (Tyrod Taylor) more than than we’ll be about Tom running.”   


Pregame number: Al Horford to the rescue


Pregame number: Al Horford to the rescue

Tonight’s pregame number to watch is 45.4%. That was the Celtics' score frequency on pick and rolls finished by the screener last season, which was the worst rate in the NBA.

Score Frequency: The percentage of possession in which the team or player scores at least 1 point.

The major problem for the Celtics last season was personnel, as Jared Sullinger finished the most pick and roll plays for the C’s after setting a screen, and he was -- to put it nicely -- freaking terrible. Sullinger was the second-worst roll/pop man in the league, averaging a paltry 0.87 points per possession.

Fortunately, the Celtics replaced Jared Sullinger with four-time All-Star Al Horford, who is one of the elite roll/pop men in the NBA. Last season, Horford finished fifth in the NBA averaging 1.13 points per possession as a roll/pop man and boasted a more than solid 57.1 eFG% on those plays. 

eFG% (Effective Field Goal Percentage): Measures field goal percentage adjusting for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal. The equation is ((FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

If you watched the preseason, then you already know the kind of impact Horford can have on the Celtics half court offense. So keep an eye out for those pick and rolls tonight and throughout the season, and we should see that 45.4% Score Frequency jump somewhere closer to 50%.