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Rothstein Files: Tony Bennett deserves more credit

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1. Tony Bennett deserves more credit for the job he’s done this season at Virginia

The 47-year old head coach led the Cavaliers to a combined 89 victories over the previous three seasons, but this campaign might have been his most impressive since he arrived in Charlottesville, considering the circumstances.

Virginia came into this season expecting to have an All-ACC player in the low post in Memphis transfer Austin Nichols, but his dismissal left a gaping hole in this team’s interior offense.

Without Nichols, the Cavaliers had an extremely difficult time generating baskets in the half court and scored fewer than 60 points five times during conference play.

Nevertheless, Bennett still managed to lead Virginia to 21 overall victories and in 11 in the ACC — the same amount of Duke — in a year in which the conference was as deep as any in the history of college basketball.

That’s an amazing achievement, especially when you consider the contrast in talent between the Cavaliers’ roster and the Blue Devils’ roster.

Virginia’s ACC wins were highlighted by a home victory over North Carolina, a 17-point road win at Notre Dame, and a sweep of Louisville.

The Cavaliers will face either of Georgia Tech/Pitt on Wednesday at the ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center.

2. Middle Tennessee will have a chance at an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the C-USA Tournament

Not many mid-majors have a legitimate chance at an-large bid this March, but the Blue Raiders are the rare exception.

Middle Tennessee owns victories over two regular season conference regular season champions — UNC Wilmington and Belmont (on the road) — while also posting wins over two SEC teams — Vanderbilt and Ole Miss (on the road).

That’s significant equity when you can consider the fact that Kermit Davis’ team also went 17-1 in league play and its only defeat was a three-point loss at UTEP.

It’s not in the best interest for this team to lose in this week’s Conference-USA Tournament, but the resume of this team is far better than the Blue Raiders’ team that earned an at-large bid to the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Mid-major case study: Middle Tennessee's Jaqawn Raymond reacts after drawing his fourth foul during the second half of a second-round men's college basketball game against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament, Sunday, March 20, 2016, in St. Louis. Syracuse won 75-50. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Mid-major case study: Middle Tennessee’s Jaqawn Raymond reacts after drawing his fourth foul during the second half of a second-round men’s college basketball game against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament, Sunday, March 20, 2016, in St. Louis. Syracuse won 75-50. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

3. Gonzaga could use another white knuckler Tuesday against Saint Mary’s

Tonight’s WCC title game in Las Vegas will be between two teams with combined records of 59-4 overall, but for some reason, all the focus will solely be on Gonzaga.

There’s plenty of reasons for that.

The Bulldogs were one of college basketball’s most unique stories this season and were undefeated until falling to BYU 10 days ago in Spokane. This is the most complete team Mark Few has had at Gonzaga, and if this unit is going to truly have a chance to go to the Final Four in a few weeks, then the best thing tonight against Saint Mary’s will be a game that comes down to the final few possessions.

This team was sluggish on Monday in a nine-point win over Santa Clara and it’s clear that a lack of repetition in meaningful end-of-game situations cost this squad against BYU. Prior to facing the Cougars, the last time that the Bulldogs played a game that was decided by single digits was on Dec. 3 against Arizona.

Saint Mary’s has its eyes on slaying the giant after being blown out in two regular season meetings, but Gonzaga should have its eyes on building some more calluses for the NCAA Tournament.

In the end, it could make all the difference.

4. T.J. Cromer is a name to remember for next week

The marquee guard for East Tennessee State is the type of player that will give a high-major assistant coach nightmares when the brackets are announced on Sunday night.

The high scoring Cromer averaged 32.0 points during the final two games of the SOCON Tournament and also got to the free throw line 22 times during that span while shooting 9-13 from long distance.

This kid is a gamer and will give Steve Forbes’ squad a puncher’s chance to be competitive next week in the NCAA Tournament regardless of who it plays.

Cromer is 21-22 from the foul line in his last two games.

5. Iona has become a mid-major dynasty under Tim Cluess

The decision of former Iona and current Seton Hall athletic director Pat Lyons to hire Cluess from Division II C.W. Post in 2010 will go down as one of the best hires in MAAC history.

Since taking the post in New Rochelle, the Long Island native has led the Gaels to four NCAA Tournament appearances in the last seven years and the three years during that span that Iona missed the NCAA Tournament it lost in the MAAC title game by a small margin.

Monday night’s 87-86 overtime win over Siena in Albany was the latest installment of Cluess’ March brilliance, but it would be wrong to limit his impact to just the biggest month of the year on the college basketball calendar.

The 57-year-old head coach is the only person in MAAC history to have seven consecutive 20-win seasons.

All he does is win.

Jon Rothstein has been a college basketball insider for CBS Sports since 2010 and is the lead college basketball columnist for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the host of the College Hoops Today Podcast via Compass Media Networks, which is available via iTunes. Rothstein is also a regular in-studio correspondent for both WFAN and CBS Sports Radio. He currently lives in Manhattan.

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