Rothstein Files: Rhode Island now controls its March destiny

UCLA rothstein

1. Tony Bennett is doing arguably the best coaching job of his career

That’s high praise for somebody who once took Washington State to the Sweet 16, but Bennett’s work this season at Virginia is second to none considering the circumstances.

The Cavaliers lost four seniors — Anthony Gill, Malcolm Brogdon, Evan Nolte, and Mike Tobey — from last year’s team that lost to Syracuse in the Elite Eight and also dismissed Memphis transfer Austin Nichols at the start of the season due to a violation of team rules.

Nichols was supposed to be Virginia’s anchor in the low post this season and a potential All-ACC player, but his absence hasn’t inhibited this program’s ability to excel.

Through 23 games, the Cavaliers are 18-5 overall, which is just one game below what their mark was last season at this juncture.

Bennett has proven over the last four years that he’s one of the elite coaches in the sport, but now he’s also proving that he’s capable of replenishing talent as well as anyone.

His ability to remake Virginia’s role allocation has the Cavaliers in position to win their third ACC regular season title in four years in a season in which the league is arguably the best in the history of college basketball.

2. Rhode Island now controls its March destiny

This is what Dan Hurley has been building toward.

The Rams hit some bumps in the road after a promising start thanks to injuries to both Hassan Martin and Jarvis Garrett, but after Tuesday’s 70-62 win at UMass, this team is still very well positioned to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

Rhode Island is 16-7 overall heading into Friday night’s game in Kingston against Dayton and the Rams will host both the Flyers and VCU in Kingston down the stretch.

Sweeping those two games to go with a November victory over Cincinnati on a neutral floor should be more than enough to get this team into the field of 68 barring a slew of other bad losses during the final weeks of Atlantic 10 play.

There’s no time like the present for Hurley and Rhode Island.

3. Injuries have hampered the Big Ten’s overall depth

This league has regularly been one of the best in college basketball, but its inability to have certain programs stay healthy has directly affected how many teams currently look like legitimate threats at this juncture to play deep into the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State planned on having a pair of veterans — Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling — to anchor its front court this season and both suffered season-ending injuries.

Indiana, meanwhile, beat both Kansas and North Carolina early, but then lost OG Anunoby to a season-ending knee injury and James Blackmon is also currently out indefinitely with a lower leg injury. That puts the Hoosiers without two starters at a critical juncture of the season and they also lost another starter — Collin Hartman — during the preseason to a knee injury.

Had both Michigan State and Indiana been at full strength, the Big Ten would have two more teams that wouldn’t only be locks for the NCAA Tournament, but legitimate threats to play deep into the second weekend.

Ohio State is another team in this league that’s been hit by the injury bug, as its best defender, Keita Bates-Diop, only played nine games before having season-ending surgery.

Other than Wisconsin, Purdue, Maryland, and Northwestern, there isn’t a single team that looks like an absolute lock for the field of 68 as we’re now four and a half weeks away from Selection Sunday.

It’s all because of injuries.

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This and That:

– One big thing to remember about Gonzaga: The Bulldogs haven’t played a game that was decided by single digits since Dec. 3 against Arizona. That’s 66 days ago. Mark Few’s squad is 24-0 overall and will next face Loyola Marymount on Thursday night in Los Angeles.

– Kansas freshman Josh Jackson has now made a three-point shot in six consecutive games and is 13-24 from long distance during that span. Jackson’s achilles heel is now becoming something he’s comfortable with and that’s bad news for the rest of the Jayhawks’ opponents.

– Florida State’s collective depth could be a major factor during the second half of the conference season. Everyone else seems to be tightening their rotation, but the Seminoles are not. Twelve players on Leonard Hamilton’s squad are averaging 9.4 minutes or more.

– Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim told FanRag Sports this week that this year’s ACC is ahead of the 2011 Big East, which put 11 teams into the NCAA Tournament six years ago. “The ACC this year is probably a little better because teams at the bottom are better,” Boeheim said when comparing the two leagues. “In the Big East, there were games that we knew we were going to win. You don’t have that this year in the ACC.”

– A word to the wise: Do not miss Thursday night’s game between Oregon and UCLA in Westwood. The Ducks are on the heels of last Saturday’s 27-point win over Arizona while the Bruins averaged 101.0 points in back-to-back wins last week at Washington State and Washington. This could be one of the more entertaining games of the regular season and if you ignore it, you may as well admit that you hate fun.

– Four of Cincinnati’s last six opponents have scored 61 points or more. The Bearcats can’t lose their culture just because they’ve become a better offensive team.

– Cal’s Charlie Moore is the best Pac-12 freshman that nobody’s talking about. The diminutive guard has a combined 23 assists in his last three games and is averaging 14.1 points. Moore was a late addition to the Bears’ recruiting class and he may very well be the reason why Cuonzo Martin is able to get this program back to the NCAA Tournament.

– Wichita State has held three of its last four opponents to 49 points or less. The Shockers are getting defensive at the right time — as usual. Gregg Marshall’s squad is 21-4 overall.

– Looking for a name to keep an eye on out of the Patriot League? Try Bucknell’s Nana Foulland. The 6-9 big man is the anchor for the Bison down low and is shooting 63.6 percent from the field while averaging 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds. Bucknell is 19-6 overall and the heavy favorite in this conference.

– USC’s road sweep last weekend at Washington and Washington State was the first road sweep that the Trojans have had since Andy Enfield was hired in 2013. The “other” school in Los Angeles has officially become a legitimate program this season under Enfield’s watch, as USC is primed to play in its second consecutive NCAA Tournament.

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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