Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports

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Why Davidson Should Reexamine Its Policy on Retiring Numbers

Stephen Curry and Davidson College are close to synonymous in the minds of millions of sports fans. The NBA MVP wore the Davidson name on his chest for three years, but has carried the school’s name with him wherever he’s gone since. Nobody can mention Davidson without Curry.

Davidson men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop, four wins shy of 500 for his career, has become an unofficial spokesman for Curry. Appearing on nearly every national sports platform there is, McKillop has spent countless mornings talking about his former star. Even six years past Curry’s departure for the NBA, McKillop is spending large portions of his time and energy talking up Curry, because frankly, Curry’s success and profile in the NBA can only help the Davidson basketball program.

The college too has realized just how important Curry is to the school’s image and brand. A disproportionate amount of posts on official college social media accounts are Curry related. And while some of them reference Curry’s time at Davidson and his magical run to the Elite 8 in 2008, most are simply another article about how great a player he is. During freshman orientation, Curry’s signature is shown on the big screen, not on a basketball but on the Honor Code pledge. In the minds of many, he is Davidson.

When the college was creating its new tv ad for the start of Atlantic 10 play this past year, the school narrowed their choices to three final scripts. One of which was 30 seconds of Curry and how Davidson allowed him to excel. To the relief of many, somebody realized the school shouldn’t go that far, and they eventually settled on the “We Make It Better” ad, which still communicates before saying anything else about the school that Curry was a Wildcat.

At the union late at night, the Warriors games will always be on, for nearly everybody on campus is in some small way a Warriors fan. Because we all love Steph, both who he is and all he did for the school. Our bookstore still sells number 30 Davidson jerseys, which the NCAA would assure you are in no way related to the current NBA superstar who wore that number at Davidson of course.

Yet walk into Belk Arena, home of the basketball team, and there is no mention of Curry in sight. Wander downstairs to the cafe and you might find a small framed picture on the wall along with many other athletics photos, but inside the arena, there is nothing. Look up to the rafters and number 30 is conspicuously not up there with the greats of Davidson basketball. Bob McKillop’s signature is now on the court named after the legendary coach, but signs of his famous player are nowhere to be found.

All of this can be explained. Davidson College has a policy that only players who have graduated can have their numbers retired. And Curry knew this when he declared for the NBA Draft after his junior year. Graduating from Davidson is tough, but even tougher for a professional athlete, because the school doesn’t offer summer courses, and has a policy that a student’s final eight credits must be taken at the college unless special permission is granted.

Towards the bottom of this Associated Press article about his declaring for the draft back in 2009, it says, “Curry met with the school’s president to see if other arrangements could be made to get his degree, but was told he’d have to take most of his senior-year courses on campus.” And I think that stance is fair. It’s understandable that the college wouldn’t want to just hand him a degree.

But despite this, Curry has maintained that he intends to finish his degree. During the NBA lockout in 2011, he returned to school and took three classes, finishing them up during training camp on the school’s allowance when the lockout ended in early December, shortly before exams would have been. However the end of the lockout meant he’s not quite done. Ahead of him lies one more semester, one that would include a thesis, likely on NBA and tattoos. But without another lockout, the next time Curry would be free for a full semester would be after retirement, which hopefully won’t be for another 12+ years.

When somebody hears about Davidson, the first two things that are normally associated with the school are Curry and free laundry. Well, Lula Bell laundry is now gone, so for many who aren’t familiar with the school, Curry is what is keeping Davidson on the national radar. And he carries that banner with aplomb, representing the school better than anyone else can.

At graduation this year, President Carol Quillen talked about how traditions shouldn’t just be upheld for tradition’s sake. She spoke about how wonderful the dialogue is about such issues at Davidson and cited the closing of Lula Bell as a way for the school to look forward rather than back. As one of the most vocal supporters of Curry as there is, you’d think she might see the changing tides at Davidson as a chance to tweak the rule that necessitates graduation for a number to be retired in the basketball program.

While I don’t necessarily agree with the need to relinquish tradition, I do think this is a time when Davidson can give back to the man that is giving Davidson such a terrific name right now. With the way the school is embracing his success and using that to fundraise and get the school’s brand out there, it is time the basketball program itself embraced Curry on a formal level too. If McKillop isn’t comfortable with retiring his number, a banner for his career point total or for his NBA MVP somewhere in Belk Arena would still be better than nothing.

Davidson could also use such an occasion to retire the late Mike Maloy’s number. Maloy was the first African-American basketball player at the school in 1967 and he, like Curry excelled on the court, taking the team to not one, but two Elite 8’s. He covered Sports Illustrated while at Davidson and was named an All-American three times. He, too, never graduated due to his basketball career, but was vital to the college for breaking the color barrier for the basketball program.

I’m aware that McKillop is hyper protective of Curry right now. Any and all requests to bring him to campus for one reason or another are almost guaranteed to be denied by our coach, who is justifiably looking out for his star. And perhaps he’d be worried that Curry wouldn’t have as much of an incentive to finish his classes if his number were retired. But I don’t think that is enough of a reason to justify not honoring him in some capacity.

As we all watch Curry excel in the NBA Finals, I believe it is time the college reexamines its policy on retiring numbers. For all that Curry is doing for the school’s name and the way the school is embracing that, he deserves formal acknowledgment of some kind in the basketball arena, the place where he made his mark, and a retired number could make the most sense. My hope is that by the time I graduate in two years, Curry’s 30 and Maloy’s 15 will be up in the rafters of Belk Arena along with Hobby Cobb’s 21, Fred Hetzel’s 44, Dick Snyder’s 10, John Gerdy’s 33 and Derek Rucker’s 11. It’s time we said thank you for what these players have done not just for the program, but for the school.

What do you think about this issue? Please comment below.


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Let the Madness Begin

I’m currently somewhere over Nebraska. But in just under three hours, I will be on the ground covering the NCAA Tournament in Seattle, WA. This is a dream come true. Getting all the emails this past week as an official part of the media team has gotten me bursting with excitement for being there. And that doesn’t even include my excitement levels for the basketball.

Today, my plan is to check into the hotel, monitor the end of the first set of games while figuring out a way to eat something, then head over to Key Arena for an afternoon of practices and press conferences. Among the things I’m most excited for is getting the chance to watch the open practices up close. I want to see the differences between a Rick Pitino practice and a Bob McKillop practice. I want to see Kyle Wiltjer and Seth Tuttle and the work they put in to be great.

Tomorrow, I get to cover four games, beginning with Wyoming and Northern Iowa at 10:40 am and ending with the Gonzaga-North Dakota State game in the late slot. I’ll have a full article about Davidson-Iowa of course (I”ll probably also have a preview of the game tonight), but I’m not sure yet what content will look like for the rest. At the minimum, I”ll be tweeting about the games, so follow me (@Klaus_Faust) for that. But I will have my labtop on me and will watch as many games as I possibly can. After Davidson’s open practice finishes up around 6:30 (Pacific Time), I’ll make my way back to the hotel to watch the Arkansas game.

I’m strangely not that worried about this game. Being familiar with Wofford from Davidson’s time in the SoCon, I just don’t see how they’ll be able to match up with Arkansas. I think they’ll have trouble with the pace, and they shouldn’t be able to cover Bobby Portis. He needs a big game to restore his confidence after an abysmal SEC Tournament offensively. What makes me more comfortable with this team than past Arkansas teams is their poise. Ky Madden has become the Mr. Cool and Anton Beard seems unaffected by momentum. Should things go poorly, those two guards along with Michael Qualls can get the Hogs back into the game. My prediction is a 15-point win.

The game I’m most excited for today other than Arkansas is Butler and Texas. I went back and forth on this pick all week. Originally I had Butler, but now I’m with Texas. The matchups are quite intriguing here. Isaiah Taylor might struggle against Alex Barlow, and Kameron Woods should be able to counteract some of Texas’s size advantage with his defensive rebounding ability. But ultimately, I think Texas will get enough looks close to the basket that it will stay close. And the final minutes, I wouldn’t want to be Butler trying to navigate with such poor free-throw shooters on the floor. That’ll be the difference.

Other games I’m especially looking forward to are LSU-NC State, EWU-Georgetown and UNC-Harvard. But of course, I’m excited for them all. It’s the best time of the year. And as I’m about to run out of time on the Wi-Fi, I must finish this up now.

My final four is Kentucky, Arizona, UVA and Gonzaga, with Kentucky over Gonzaga in the final. My goal is to be 95th percentile or better this year – it’s also to beat my brother who’s notoriously good at this. Enjoy the day, and may the madness begin.

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Davidson’s Star Trio

(Written for today’s NCAA Tournament Preview edition of The Davidsonian. I will be traveling to the NCAA Tournament tomorrow morning to cover Davidson and the other games in Seattle. For updates, check the site and follow me on Twitter @Klaus_Faust)

Before the season ever began, Coach Bob McKillop was singing the praises of his new captains, guards Tyler Kalinoski ’15, Brian Sullivan ’16 and Jack Gibbs ’17 and the work they had done in keeping the team on task in the offseason. But despite lofty expectations from their coach – though certainly not from the national media – it’s safe to say any and all expectations within the program were broken by the trio this year.

“We’re built around those three guys,” fellow starter Jordan Barham ’16 said of the three guards, “All three of them are such good all-around basketball players. There’s not one thing you can really take away [as a defense]. Teams in the A-10 will try to run them off the three-point line and they’ll go by their guys and get to the rim. You’ll try to go off a ball screen, and they’ll hit a three.”

The offense starts with the three captains, who were each named to all-conference teams last week. They’ve been at the forefront of everything Davidson has done, always directing play on the court and making winning plays.

Kalinoski has mainly played off the ball, excelling in his senior year on the offensive end on his way to being named Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. Playing almost every minute, he was in double-figures in scoring every single conference game. But where he has made his mark has been with his composure and his ability to ignite second-half runs with his shooting and his defense. He’s shooting above 43% from deep and has knocked down shot after shot on his way to average 17 ppg, 5.6 rpg and 4.1 assists.

Sullivan’s season didn’t start the way he wanted shooting the ball from deep. But amidst those struggles came a better defender and a better passer. He became so much more than just a three-point shooter because he had to contribute elsewhere. So by the time he found his stroke, he was a much more complete player. When Gibbs went down with an injury, it was Sullivan who took over at the point, and his play helped ignite Davidson’s 10-game win streak to close out conference play.

Despite a knee injury that sidelined him for seven games during conference play, Gibbs is having a sensational leap scoring wise as the primary point guard, highlighted by a 37 point effort at UCF. It’s as if he’s gained half a step from a year ago. In transition, he has been lethal, seemingly always picking the right option. And his shooting percentages have increased dramatically, up from 32% a year ago to 44% this year from deep.

Davidson’s offense was peaking right when Gibbs went down before the Dayton game. But with Sullivan sliding over and Kalinoski taking on more ball-handling duties, the Wildcats didn’t lose a beat.

“I think Brian and Ty especially, with Jack being down, really made a concerted effort to keep guys accountable and lead by example and by the way they were playing,” Barham said. “I think everyone just bought in. Jack, being on the sidelines coaching people up, really helped. The three of those guys are so key to this team in so many different aspects even aside from their play on the court.”

Spacing wise, having all three of them on the court at the same time, which McKillop does most of the time, gives opponents nightmares. They can’t focus on one or two of them, because the other will go off. Teams have tried zones, they’ve tried man, but the games when opponents have shut down all three have been few and far between.

Their threat on the perimeter gives the offense many more options in the halfcourt in Davidson’s motion and screen heavy offense. Because defenders must remain tight on the guards coming off screens, it leaves them susceptible to back-cuts and drives from Barham, who in particular has benefitted from the attention the guards receive on the perimeter. Most shooters don’t like to screen, but these guys do that too.

As a team, Davidson ranks 8th in the nation in offense efficiency behind the three guards, up from 35th a year ago. Sure, the team is shooting slightly better this year, but the main difference has been impeccable ball control. Last year, Davidson ranked 64th nationally in turnover percentage. This year, they are second, behind only Wisconsin.

All three of this trio have stepped up to hit shots that kept the Wildcats’ season alive. Think back to a trip to George Mason, when Gibbs was out, when Sullivan sent the game to overtime with a contested three, just seconds after Oskar Michelsen ’18 had made one to cut the deficit to three. Or on the road at URI, when Gibbs hit a go-ahead step-back three in the corner to give the Wildcats the lead after a rough night of shooting. Or in the A-10 quarterfinal, after making a couple big triples down the stretch, Kalinoski had the presence of mind to drive to the hoop and lay in a winning basket as time expired against La Salle.

Had they missed those shots, those would have been costly losses. But these three have proven game after game that they have the utmost confidence in themselves and in their teammates. That is what you want from captains. You want stars on the court who can lead by example with consistently superb play. But you also want those who want their teammates to succeed, setting them up on the court with assists and off the court with steadfast commitment and leadership.

It is rare to see the three-guard system work so effectively in college basketball. But Kalinoski, Sullivan and Gibbs have found ways to complement each other in every fashion. Together, they’ve been the engine behind Davidson’s remarkable season.


Atlantic 10 Conference Preview and Predictions

2013-2014 was a banner year for Atlantic 10 basketball. As many A-10 teams made it to the NCAA Tournament as ACC teams. But this year was always going to be a transition year for the conference. Non-conference play is now nearly over, and it has become evident that the conference is down significantly from the highs of a year ago. Teams top to bottom have struggled at various times throughout the year. But from the struggles, solid basketball teams are emerging as conference play is about to begin.

The A-10 won’t get six bids this year, but it can reasonably aim for three or four. There is tremendous parity among the middle eight or nine teams, so this should be a fun year. Here are my predictions for the order of finish in conference play this winter. All statistics are through December 28 and are from Kenpom.com.

14. Fordham (4-6).  Best Wins – None. Worst Losses – home vs. Maryland Eastern Shore, home vs. UMass-Lowell. Player to Watch – Eric Paschall (16.8 ppg) – the freshman scored 31 points in the season opener, but has since cooled down. He is a streaky shooter capable of catching fire. On the negative side, he turns the ball over at alarming rate (3.4 per game).

Fordham does little well on the court. They are subpar on offense and can’t play defense. Their relative inexperience is shown in their 339th national rank in turnovers. They shoot below 30% from three as a team, so they don’t have much chance to beat better teams that way. The one thing they do well is rebound the ball, as Ryan Rhoomes is one of the best offensive rebounders in the conference, although he can’t do anything else with the ball. Fordham will have to improve tremendously if they want to win more than one or two games.

13. Duquesne (4-6). Best Wins – None. Worst Losses – home vs. NJIT, home vs. Maryland Eastern Shore. Player to Watch – Jordan Stevens (12.5 ppg) – Stevens leads the Dukes in points despite playing only 22.4 minutes per game. His best game of the year came at Penn State. If given a bigger role, Stevens has a chance to blossom.

Duquesne has not beat anyone even remotely good in non-conference play, but they have kept a couple of games close against talented teams. They actually play a little defense, and are capable of shooting the three, which is why I put them ahead of Fordham, as they might win some games if they get hot. However, this team might be equally bad. They shoot a miserable 59.6% from the free throw line, good for 341st in the country. And they have no star players capable of leading the charge.

12. Saint Louis (8-4). Best Wins – home vs. Vermont. Worst Losses – home vs. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, home vs. South Dakota St. Player to Watch – Achraf Yacoubou (9.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) – the transfer from Villanova is part of a balanced Billikens offense. Yacoubou likes the ball in his hands and has been putting the ball on the floor more this year to get to the basket. He’s no Jordair Jett, but he’s just about the best they’ve got.

The problem with starting five seniors one year is that you’re left with a lot to do the following year. Don’t be fooled by the wins in non-conference play, as Saint Louis has played one of the ten easiest schedules thus far. This team is young and lacks a true scorer. Not one player averages even 11 points per game. They do a tremendous job of getting to the free throw line, but they aren’t a particularly great shooting team from the stripe. Defensively, they’re solid, but where they will struggle is in the half-court offense. For a team used to success, Saint Louis will have a rough go of it this year. Jim Crews has a tough job.

11. St. Bonaventure (7-3). Best Wins – home vs. Buffalo. Worst Losses – home vs. Maryland Eastern Shore. Player to Watch – Youssou Ndoye (11.1 ppg, 11.3 rpg) – the senior center has taken a big leap this year and become a force on the glass. His defensive rebounding rate is 7th best in the nation. He has also begun to put things together on the offensive end, scoring 17 or more in three of his last six games.

This is where the parity begins. The Bonnies are by no means a bad team, as many saw in their run in the conference tournament last year. They might even reach seven or eight victories. But they have some holes that make me believe they’ll struggle at times. For one, while their interior defense is strong, they are dreadful at defending the three. They also rely solely on their starters, which means foul trouble or a single injury could prove problematic. Marcus Posley can score, Ndoye can rebound and defend, so they will be right there in many games. But I’m not sure freshman point guard Jaylen Adams (not to be confused with Jalen Adams, a redshirt freshman) is quite ready for big road tests. He can shoot, but can he make the right decisions in tough situations? (On a side note, Maryland Eastern Shore would do well to play A-10 teams all year.)

10. George Mason (5-6). Best Wins – home vs. Iona. Worst Losses – home vs. Cornell. Player to Watch – Shevon Thompson (12.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg) – the JuCo transfer from Jamaica has produced some massive double-doubles lately, including 29-10 and 24-14 games. He is a rebounding machine, and currently ranks second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.

George Mason has played a tough non-conference schedule and taken their licks. After the first week of December and a heartbreaking overtime loss to Northern Iowa, they sat at 2-6. But a recent win streak should give them some confidence going into A-10 play. They aren’t a great shooting team, but they do a good job of getting to the line. Their height, led by Thompson, will give a lot of teams big problems. This team can play. It’s just a question of whether or not they’ll be able to finish games.

9. St. Joseph’s (6-4).  Best Wins – home vs. Temple. Worst Losses – home vs. Fairleigh Dickinson. Player to Watch – DeAndre Bembry (14.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) – Bembry is almost always on the court, taking a lot of shots. But he hasn’t found his shooting rhythm this year, seeing his percentages drop significantly from a year ago. His last couple games suggest a change in his fortunes might be coming though.

The Hawks are an interesting team. Between Bembry and Isaiah Miles, they certainly have the scoring ability. Their defense will be near the top of the A-10 too. And they’ve pulled out a lot of close games so far. But this team hasn’t shot the ball well at all, shooting only 25.2% from three as a team on the season and 62.3% from the free throw line. They’ve thrown two stinkers in their two biggest games against Gonzaga and Villanova, losing by a combined 80 points in the two games. So where will they land in conference play? I think somewhere in the middle. They’ve got the talent to beat anyone, but they lack the consistency to make a serious run.

8. La Salle (7-5). Best Wins – at Hofstra. Worst Losses – home vs. American. Player to Watch – Jordan Price (18.8 ppg) – the sophomore transfer from Auburn has lit it up, scoring upwards of 25 points four times, including in three straight late December contests. He lives at the free-throw line, and always will take the big shots.

Here’s where the teams really begin to bunch up. La Salle has played a lot of good teams close, and they’ve seen great competition, but they have come up short in every single one of those games. They just don’t have that killer instinct quite yet. However, they do a number of things well. As a team, they defend in the half-court better than almost everyone in the conference. They have some height across the board, and are a solid rebounding team. Price’s ability to score should keep them in many games. Expect them to get a couple of huge wins, but disappoint with more than their fair share of tight losses.

7. Dayton (9-2). Best Wins – neutral vs. Texas A&M, home vs. Georgia Tech. Worst Losses – none. Player to Watch – Jordan Sibert (15.3 ppg) – a major contributor in last year’s Elite 8 run, Sibert has had an up and down season so far. He’s great with the ball in his hands and brings a veteran presence to Dayton’s offense. He was terrific in the victory over Georgia Tech last week.

Were it not for the dismissal of Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson, the Flyers could have been an outside contender for the conference title. But the loss of the two forwards leaves Dayton in a bind, as they now have zero players taller than 6’6″ and a rotation of only seven players. I just don’t see that working out long term. They have a good offense and an even better pressure defense, but the lack of size will bite them in the foot against otherwise inferior teams like George Mason. Their schedule is set up for a great start, so don’t be surprised if Dayton is 5-0 heading into their trip to Davidson, but I don’t think they have the bodies to withstand the recent adversity all the way to March.

6. UMass (6-6). Best Wins – home vs. Northeastern. Worst Losses – home vs. Florida Gulf Coast. Player to Watch – Derrick Gordon (11.5 ppg) – Gordon earned the headlines by becoming the first openly gay college basketball player last spring. Big things were expected from him on the court this season. Gordon has been solid, but unspectacular. He’s been sharp with the ball, but hasn’t shot the ball well. For UMass to find success, Gordon needs to become a bigger part of the offense.

UMass had high expectations coming in to this season, but December has seen things fall apart for the Minutemen. A close loss to rival Harvard sent them into a skid in which they’ve lost five of six. They’re a great team in the half-court offense, but they have very little in the way of outside shooting, which has cost them. Cady Lalanne has been big down low in setting up their interior defense, but he’ll need to improve further on the offensive end in conference play. UMass has a tough January, so it’ll be interesting to see whether they can bounce back from this tough stretch quickly enough to get mentally ready for the conference grind. That being said, they are one of the most talented teams in the league, and have a higher ceiling than most. I can see them finishing anywhere from 3rd to 10th.

5. Richmond (7-6). Best Wins – home vs. William & Mary. Worst Losses – at James Madison. Player to Watch – Kendall Anthony (15.3 ppg) – the diminutive senior has maintained a steady level of production since freshman year. But now, more needs to be asked of Anthony. He’s been streaky from behind the arc so far, which has led to scattered performances. The Spiders need their senior guard to be a consistent scoring presence and a reliable ball handler.

Don’t expect to score more than 60 points against the Spiders this year. They play at a snail’s pace and buckle down on defense from the opening tip. They won’t blow by you or overpower you inside, but they will give you a game. Offensively, they do a good job of not turning the ball over, and they shoot a great percentage inside the arc. They have a lot of length, which could present problems for teams that like to put the ball on the floor. This team doesn’t have as high a ceiling as many across the A-10, but they will be a tough one to beat.

4. Davidson (9-1). Best Wins – home vs. Charlotte. Worst Losses – none. Player to Watch – Tyler Kalinoski (16.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.7 apg) – an outside conference player of the year candidate, Kalinoski is one of the nation’s most efficient guards. He is a lights out shooter, making 41.5% of his threes thus far, and he never turns the ball over. He’s patient on the break, and gets his teammates a lot of space by drawing extra defenders. He also has been a much better player in the second half of games – twice in early December he had 19 or more second half points – and has the clutch gene so many players lack.

Possibly the biggest joke of the A-10 year was the preseason placement of newcomer Davidson as 12th out of 14 teams. In their first year in the conference and without a veteran front court, many expected the Wildcats to struggle. But Bob McKillop’s team has breezed through their non-conference slate with the nation’s best scoring offense. This team does not turn the ball over and is full of players who can shoot from anywhere. Seven different players have scored at least 16 points in a game. Freshman forward Peyton Aldridge is proving to be a terrific addition, and a player not afraid of the big stage, as evidenced by his 25 point performance against UNC. Davidson may come to regret the easy non-conference schedule, as an at-large bid may be in play. Watch out for the Wildcats in March, as this team can not only shoot (17th best three point shooting team in the country), but they play defense and don’t give away any possessions.

3. Rhode Island (7-3). Best Wins – home vs. Nebraska. Worst Losses – none. Player to Watch – E.C. Matthews (17.7 ppg) – Matthews has scored in bunches when he’s caught fire this season. He’s the key to Rhode Island’s offense and a great shooter. The sophomore guard has shot the ball better than he did a year ago both within the arc and outside it, although he has been streaky from three.

Rhode Island will be squarely on the bubble all season. But I believe they will ultimately get in the Big Dance behind a stingy defense that ranks 25th best in the nation. Hassan Martin and Gilvydas Biruta lead a front line that is one of the toughest in the A-10 on both ends. And while Matthews provides the outside threat, his teammates do an excellent job of getting to the foul line. Together, they make for a dynamic group of players. A home game vs. VCU on January 13 will be a fantastic test of the Rams’ defense, so be on the lookout for that score as a way of determining just how far Rhode Island will go.

2. George Washington (9-3). Best Wins – neutral vs. Wichita State, neutral vs. Colorado. Worst Losses – none. Player to Watch – Yuta Watanabe (7.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg) – the freshman role player from Japan might seem a strange choice given his relatively low numbers, but he will be vital to the Colonels long term success. “The Chosen One,” as dubbed by The Japan Times, has the ability to stretch opposing defenses with the three-point shot, something none of his teammates do. He will be the necessary zone-buster in certain games. But Watanabe is also capable of putting the ball on the floor, so don’t be deceived into thinking he’s a one-way threat.

If I had to rank the best team in the conference at this moment, I’d put George Washington at the top. They’re an incredibly solid basketball team. They have a top-15 defense, which gives away very few easy buckets despite its propensity to force turnovers. And offensively, they’re balanced and efficient in the half-court. Kethan Savage and a few others showed in Hawaii that they’re capable of stepping up in the crucial moments, so beware the Colonels in March. With George Washington, you know what you’re going to get – 40 minutes of disciplined, well-coached basketball. But where they might struggle is against equally defensively minded teams that pack the interior.

1. VCU (9-3). Best Wins – home vs. Northern Iowa, neutral vs. Oregon. Worst Losses – at Old Dominion. Player to Watch – Treveon Graham (16.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) – the senior has taken another step this year, improving his three point stroke and his ball-handling. VCU will go as Graham goes against top quality opposition, as he is one of the players capable of matching up with anyone across the nation.

VCU has played one of the toughest schedules in the country, and after falling to 5-3 with a loss at home to Virginia, there were some questions about whether this team would fail to reach their potential. But since that loss, VCU has won four straight, including grinding out an impressive double-overtime win over Northern Iowa. VCU is one of the nation’s best on both ends. They play fast, and as a result force turnovers on 25.6% of their opponent’s possessions, good for ninth in the country. Offensively, they’re as talented as anyone, and their veteran backcourt doesn’t turn the ball over. This team has not come close to reaching their ceiling, and for that reason I project them to finish ahead of George Washington. They can make a deep run in March.

Over the course of the conference season, I will provide updates and analysis periodically. Follow me on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust) for regular A-10 basketball coverage, and check back for write-ups of Davidson basketball games.

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Farewell to Mr. Excitement – Saying Goodbye to Rajon Rondo

Just last night, I was at my first Celtics game of the year, watching the mercurial Rajon Rondo lead the sorry-looking 2014-15 Celtics to a win over the Magic. Rondo appeared uninterested from the start, turning the ball over at an alarming rate in the first quarter. But then, like in so many other games, he started playing with an intensity that few can match. Suddenly, midway through the third quarter, he was just three rebounds away from a triple-double. He was streaking down the court to create shots left and right. He was fighting on the offensive glass. And he was attacking the rim.

But now, Rondo is packing up and headed to Dallas, traded today for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson and a future 1st and 2nd round pick. What is surprising is not that Rondo was traded, but the swiftness in which this move happened. I’m left stunned at the fact that he’s gone, that I had a chance to say goodbye, but didn’t even know it was going to be necessary. In many ways, this trade was inevitable, but it still comes as a surprise after so many years of seeing him take the floor.

Rondo did a lot of spectacular things on the basketball court. He also did a lot of agonizingly stupid things. But on the whole, he was a player worth watching on a nightly basis. And he was an absolute competitor, one right up there with Kevin Garnett as the type of player you could guarantee hated losing more than you hated sitting in traffic. Rondo played through all sorts of injuries, and routinely put his body on the line.

Watching Rondo play the last two years has been tough. He was put in an environment where he simply wasn’t going to win based on the roster around him. Because of that, I believe he started playing games with himself, trying to keep his assist-streaks going and going for triple-doubles because he wasn’t getting the necessary competition on the court. He was so competitive that he needed to avoid losing, even if that meant beating challenges he set for himself. It was almost like he had to detach himself from the reality of the losses in order to stay motivated and engaged.

Many people like to criticize Rondo for all sorts of things. But I’ve always given him the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of what his motivation was every night, he put on a show, which helped the team way more often than it hurt. Sure, it would have been nice had he learned to shoot free-throws, but he helped the team in so many other ways.

Rondo was never going to be the superstar that so many people wanted him to be. Whether it was his inability to accept coaching or his refusal to redevelop shooting mechanics, most true Celtics fans have always known Rondo needed a running mate to be successful. He may have been the official team captain, but he was not Paul Pierce by any means. He was Rondo, the player capable of anything. He was not Rondo, the player capable of leading the Celtics to a championship by himself.

The moment I knew a trade was coming was when Kevin Love went to the Cavaliers. After two seasons of rebuilding and losing, the Celtics were not going to be able to convince Rondo to come back in free agency. I don’t think he would have accepted even a max deal from the Celtics knowing more losing was on the immediate horizon. So while the return from this trade isn’t what you’d expect for a player of Rondo’s potential, it was a deal the Celtics had to make if it was truly the best offer out there. It was either this or losing him for nothing in the summer.

I’m going to miss Rondo on a number of levels. I’ll miss the competitor who wouldn’t even lose Connect-4 at charity events.  I’ll miss the fiery, grudge-holding Rondo, going against top point guards on national TV and relentlessly attacking their pride. I’ll miss triple-double seeking Rondo cleverly getting his shooters open looks as I saw one final time last night. And finally, I’ll miss playoff Rondo more than anything, but the circumstances suggested we weren’t going to see that any time soon.

Like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Doc Rivers, and Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo did spectacular things in Boston that made the city a basketball town for a number of years amidst tremendous sporting success across the board. Rondo brought excitement to the Garden night after night and produced some unforgettable moments.

Think about the dunk on Jason Maxiell. Think about Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals when Rondo poured in 44 points, while adding 8 rebounds and 10 assists. Think about his 29 point, 18 rebound, 13 assist game vs. the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010. Think about all the times he faked the behind-the-back pass. Think about that championship.

The Celtics have a long way to go before they will return to the era that Rajon Rondo helped define. But this trade is a necessary step towards that next era, a move made without a trace of nostalgia, as Danny Ainge has avoided doing in a big way. Rondo’s exit marks the official end of a remarkable era to be a Celtics fan. I’m going to miss these guys a whole lot in the years to come, but ultimately, I have faith in what Ainge is doing.

One final question I’d like to pose is whether Rondo deserves a place in the rafters. Pierce will be there for sure. Garnett will probably be there. But will Rondo’s number 9 join them? He was not dominant on the 2008 team, but in the years and playoff runs that followed, it can be argued that Rondo was the catalyst of everything that went right or wrong. And more often than not, it went right. For all his critics, Rondo was one heck of a Celtic.

It is with a great deal of sadness that I bid farewell to Rajon Rondo as a Celtic. It’s been a fun 9 years.

Do you think Rondo deserves a place in the rafters? What are your thoughts on the trade overall? Please comment below.