Back, by not-so-popular demandÖsome random thoughts
on the first month of the college basketball season.
-The parity in college basketball this year is
incredible. Duke is likely one of the top two teams, and yet it took a
miracle to beat Virginia Tech. At Cameron. Virginia Tech lost to Bowling
Green. The thing is, this has been happening all over the country.
Michigan State has been impressive in beating Boston College, Arizona
and Wichita State, yet almost lost to Cleveland State and
Arkansas-Little Rock. Gonzaga has played several classics, yet struggled
to put away Eastern Washington, Idaho and Portland State. UCLA has
beaten Nevada, Temple and Michigan, yet almost lost to Albany and Wagner
and shouldíve lost to Drexel. Indiana drills Kentucky but loses to
Indiana StateÖthe lists could go on. The point is, though, that this
year there are only a handful of elite teams-and weíre talking maybe
five. After that, almost any of the top 100 or 125 teams are fully
capable of beating each other. Even teams like Michigan State and
Gonzaga-teams considered solid top 15 teams-are not infallible.
-Was there a more enigmatic-and interesting-team
early this year than Cal-Irvine? The Anteaters are only 3-4 but have
been creative in getting there. Pat Douglassís team lost big in their
opener to George Mason-no shame in losing to the Patriots-then destroyed
a traditionally decent Mississippi Valley State team by 54. UCI then
surprised everyone by going to Stanford and handling the Cardinal
easily, a win thatís still impressive even though the Trees have had
some well-documented struggles. Irvine followed this with another good
win over Santa Clara. Then came Pepperdine. The Anteaters fell behind by
34(!) in the first halfÖand still almost went to overtime. A missed
three in the final seconds by Ross Schraeder, who scored all 29 of his
points in the second half, allowed the Waves to escape with a 79-76 win.
Just when things couldnít get any stranger, though, Irvine lost its next
game to Division II Stanislaus State.
-If the Anteaters arenít the zaniest team so far,
then Illinois-Chicago surely is. Wins over Mississippi, San Diego State,
Georgia Tech and Northwestern; losses to Chicago State and St. Xavier.
Not Xavier. St. Xavier, as in NAIA St. Xavier. Expect the Flamesí fun to
continue the rest of the year; very reminiscent of San Diego a few years
ago, a team that posted some great wins, some clunky lossesÖand upset
Gonzaga in the WCC final to get to the NCAA Tournament.
-Houston is (was) back in the national rankings, and
we love it. The Cougars resurgence is good for college basketball.
Anything that takes us back to memories of the Southwest Conference or
the 1980s is a plus, not to mention the fact that UH is one of the
all-time historic programs in the country (Oh, you didnít know that?
Stop watching ESPN and read some college basketball historyÖ) And with
Tom Penders coaching the team, we know theyíll never be boring. Just saw
that Penders is needling Ben Howland because UCLA has no interest in
replaying the 1968 thriller in the AstrodomeÖgood stuff. College
basketball needs more personalities, and Penders is certainly one of the
best. (A series between Houston and Lamar with Billy Tubbs would be
worthwhile for all) The Cougars also have some talent, and Penders teams
are always fun to watch. Houstonís winning is also good for Conference
USA because the league needs someone to challenge Memphis and at least
give C-USA the illusion of being more than just a playground for the
Tigers (and right now Texas-El Paso and Alabama-Birmingham donít seem up
-Now that Houston is back, or at least close to it,
the watch switches to UNLV. Lon Krugerís past suggests that the Rebels
should be making a move in the next year or two. So far it hasnít been
very evident, a win over a mediocre Texas Tech team notwithstanding, but
there is room to make a leap still this year. The Mountain West just
continues to become more and more average. This year Utah and New Mexico
are down without their first-round draft picks, San Diego State was
overrated again, and while Colorado State and Air Force have built up
nice records, they have come against very little quality competition.
Would be nice to see either emerge as an at-large contender, but so far
weíre not believing it. Itís funny how this league seems to be overrated
every year, or at least tries to push the myth that itís the closest
thing there is to a BCS conference. It is not nearly as good as the old
WAC was, is not as good as the Missouri Valley, Atlantic 10 or maybe
even the Colonial, and outside of Utahís making the Sweet 16 last year,
really hasnít done much in the postseason, either. The league certainly
has potential, but has had a hard time reaching it so far. UNLVís
re-emergence would be exactly what the other former WAC schools who
formed the Mountain West were counting when they invited the Rebels
along with them into the new league.
-Northwestern State and the Southland Conference have
deservedly received some publicity for their early season wins over
teams like Mississippi State and Oklahoma State, and hereís some more.
Itís been fun watching the Demons grow from a team that started five
freshmen a few years ago into one that is going to deserve a decent seed
if it makes the NCAA Tournament. Coach Mike McConathy also deserves
credit for scheduling this yearís team like a veteran-laden team should
be scheduled. NW State has also played at Missouri and Wichita State
(losing both by narrow margins) and is currently competing in the
Rainbow Classic, where their latest victim is Oregon State. This is a
team that could have a serious at-large case come Selection Sunday
should they blow through the Southland-and they will need to win the SLC
to deserve at-large consideration. Their current RPI and strength of
schedule numbers are very good, and while those will go down come
conference play, this isnít your typical, 28th-30th
best D-I conference Southland that most know it as. (Itís not as good as
its heyday in the mid-80s, when Karl Malone, Louisiana Tech and Lamar
were tearing up the league, but it is very similar to the Big West the
past few years, of which Pacific came out of as an at-large last year.)
Plus, the Demons will deserve credit not only for their wins but for
their attempts at scheduling up this year. Couldnít have asked much
-Like the Northwestern State, Iona is another veteran
team that has been very impressive in the early season. Unlike the
Demons, who have noticeably been building to this point for four years,
the Gaels have been a surprise with the suddenness of their success. The
foursome of Steve Burtt, Marvin McCullough, Ricky Soliver and Kiril
Wachsmann have been playing extensively since they were freshmen. Some
may remember them being a part of a Gaels team that in 2002-03 pulled
off one of the bigger upsets of the season when it defeated North
Carolina in the ECAC Holiday Festival. Since then, though, Iona has
struggled to be even mediocre. This year, though, Jeff Rulandís team is
proving to be one of the best in the East and possibly one of the top 50
anywhere. The win at Iowa State was impressive in its dominance, and
MAAC teams donít scare easily, so you can bet Iona would play tough at
just about any venue in the country. A team to watch in March.
-Other pleasant surprises this year so far: Wichita
State, Indiana State, Buffalo, Southland Conference, La Salle, UNC
Wilmington, Montana, South Alabama, the turnaround taking place at
Marist, Division I Colorado teams not named Northern Colorado (Air
Force, Colorado and Colorado State are a combined 24-3).
-Among the not-so-pleasant surprises: Oregon State,
Lamar, Stanford, Mississippi Valley State, Eastern Kentucky, Oral
Roberts, Utah, Northern Colorado (0-13 and counting).
-The not-so-surprising (to us) surprises: Bucknell,
Pac-10 struggles, Big East not being a 10-bid conference, the MVCís
emergence as a top conference, Indiana losing to Indiana State (Hoosiers
were going to lose at one of their three games against the Trees, Ball
State and Butler), San Diego State, Miami and UNC Charlotte not being
-The new recalculated RPI introduced last year has
been a good one, but when we see the Missouri Valley currently third, we
can already picture the howls in February should the MVC continue its
pace. How many times will we hear about ďCommon Sense IndexesĒ that tell
us that no matter what the numbers are, a Notre Dame or Michigan is
better than a Missouri State? You know itís coming; it came last year
when Vermont had such a high RPI. Based on the NCAA Tournament, seems
like the Catamountsí RPI was probably right where it shouldíve been, but
who are we to point this out to the TV heads?
-Boy, that new Big East is sure tearing it up, eh?
Louisville, Villanova and Connecticut are real (at least we think
Louisville is), West Virginia is still dangerous and probably a top 25
team, and one would think Jim Boeheim will still get 20 wins out of the
Orangemen. The rest? Chum and a whole lot of bubble teams. Georgetown
could be better than a bubble team; Notre Dame shouldnít be. Pitt hasnít
played anybody, Rutgers hasnít done much more. Marquette is young and
like Cincinnati will have its moments but likely not the consistency,
and DePaul is improving but inconsistent and should pay all year for
losing to at home to Bradley and Northern Illinois, not to mention
getting slammed at Old Dominion by 44 (more on that below). Those last
five teams are all unlikely to be NCAA quality, unless some separate
themselves in conference to create the illusion of an NCAA team. St.
Johnís is on the right track but still a year away from being even NIT
level, while Seton Hall, Providence and South Florida are bottom
feeders. Add it all up and the league has 3 definite NCAA teams, 2-3
likely ones, and after that a whole lot 50th-100th
in the country-type teams that will mix nice wins with questionable
losses. Last year the committee penalized the Mid-American Conferenceís
at-large contestants, taking none because they said all of them were too
much alike. Think the committee would offer that same lame excuse with
the Big East?
-Speaking of the MACÖwhere has it gone? Despite a
ranking in the top 10 of the RPI, the Mid-American has dropped in the
conference pecking order, and this at a time when there is space for
upstart leagues like it to be making moves (see the WCC & MVC last yr
and MVC & CAA this year). There isnít much for star power-no Wally
Szczerbiak, Bonzi Wells, Chris Kaman or even Antonio Gates-but more
importantly, the league simply isnít as deep as it used to be. There
arenít many top 50-type teams in the MAC, and the number of quality wins
against big-time (or at least big-name) opponents is lacking. Ohio was
thought to be ready to challenge for a national ranking, but got pasted
in a hideous second half showing against Cincinnati, while Buffalo is
off to a very nice and pleasantly surprising start. The trouble really
starts after those two: Miami lost at home to Xavier; Kent State, Toledo
and Western Michigan seem to be wallowing, Ball State was crushed by the
injury to Peyton Stovall, and there really isnít anyone else that looks
ready to step up. Northern Illinois is a possibility, but even the
Huskies were swamped by 36 by Missouri State. The Miami loss to Xavier
seems to be a microcosm of where the MAC is right now; thatís a game
that a few yrs ago a top MAC team wouldíve won. On the other hand, if
the Bobcats and Bulls both blow through the league, ironically one of
the MACís weaker years in some time could also end up being one of its
best chances for multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament.
-Richmond has some of the best uniforms in the
country. Just thought this should be noted. Classic look, Spiders.
-Boy, North Carolina is really down this year, eh?
Anyone who thought the Heels were going to become irrelevant at any
point with Roy Williams as a coachÖoy. There still will be
inconsistencies-as shown against USC-but itís hard to imagine UNC not
being in the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, those that jumped on
the Miami bandwagon for some unknown reason have our permission to get
off. A few nice conference wins does not make up for weak
out-of-conference play, last year or this year.
-Wisconsin-Milwaukee lost to Wisconsin, but it will
be interesting to see if the game serves as something of a springboard
for the rest of the year. The Panthers were all but dead in the first
half in Madison, down by 20 and with star forward Joah Tucker on the
bench with four fouls, when something funny happened: UWM got back in
the game. That Milwaukee was able to go on the road to a top 15 team (no
matter what the polls say) and come back from a 20-point deficit with
the best player in the Horizon League on the bench should give the team
serious juice the rest of the season. The Panthers didnít lose their
postseason zing when Bruce Pearl and Ed McCants left, after all, and
appear to be finding a nice compromise now between Pearlís freewheeling
teams and new coach Rob Jeterís Bo Ryan-influenced style.
-New Mexico State is not going to be particularly
good this year, but the Aggies will be one of those teams that no one in
the WAC will want to play in February and March.
-Itís time to take notice of Wagner. We were going to
note this even before the Seahawks went to UCLA and lost in the final
seconds, 74-72. Even after that loss, Wagner is 6-2 and came into the
UCLA game fresh off a win at Rhode Island. Winning at Rhode Island earns
a team like Wagner attention. Before beating URI, Mike Deaneís team had
played a Pitt-like schedule (see below) and even lost to Vermont, a team
the Panthers have beaten. (Of course, thereís that little difference
between the Big East Conference and the Northeast Conference, so weíre
going to say Wagner deserves a little less fault for their schedule.)
Should we really be surprised by the Seahawks, though,
-Pittsburgh is now 9-0 and has playedÖahem: St.
Peterís, Robert Morris, Maine, St. Francis (but thatís St. Francis of
New York, not PennsylvaniaÖas if thereís any blasted difference to a Big
East team), Auburn, Duquesne, Penn State, Vermont, and now, Coppin
State. John Thompson would be proud, though a tad disappointed that St.
Leo and Hawaii-Loa didnít make the itinerary. The Panthers have played
some wimpy non-con schedules in recent years, and this one certainly
continues the tradition. Even the best spinster couldnít count one of
those wins as impressive. (Which is the best one? Auburn? Robert
Morris?) No way the Panthers deserve their #25 ranking yet, not over
teams like Northern Iowa, Bucknell or even West Virginia. Hate to keep
piling on here, but if Pitt doesnít win a minimum of 21 games, they
shouldnít get a single sniff of NCAA consideration. Itís one thing for a
program to schedule like this when itís trying to learn how to win; itís
something totally different when you have a recent history of NCAA
appearances. Late December games against South Carolina and Wisconsin
donít make up for this putrid ledger. Pitt is better than this.
-Was all set to give Old Dominion and the CAA serious
respect for its early season start and for ODUís demolition of DePaul on
Saturday. While the CAA still is looking good in the overall conference
RPI, though, the leagueís at-large chances remain no better than a
toss-up. The Monarchs followed up their win over the Blue Demons with an
overtime loss at Richmond-not a horrible loss, but ODU should be better
than the Spiders. The defeat looks even worse when one takes note of the
19-point hole the visitorsí got themselves into against a team that
isnít exactly an offensive juggernaut. Worse than that, Northeastern, a
team some think is the second-best in the league (not likely) lost by 22
at Providence, a bottom of the barrel Big East squad. Until then, it
looked like the CAA was ready to kick down the door to at-large
consideration, a door that has been locked for the league for a long
time. Not since 1986 when Richmond snuck into the tourney as an at-large
has the league sent a second team to the NCAAs, but it could happen this
year. Old Dominion is still the likely team to do it if the Monarchs
donít win the CAA tourney, though Drexel also will have a chance. ODU
had already beaten surprisingly strong Georgia as well as Fordham and
lost a close one to Wisconsin before it destroyed DePaul. Even with the
loss to Richmond and an early conference loss to Drexel, that win should
still give the Monarchs some oomph when at-large bids are discussed.
There is just something missing from ODU so far, though, as if players
are still searching for their roles. Alex Loughton is not getting as
many shots as he should, while other players seem to be taking too many
shots. The Monarchs also needed a three at the buzzer to beat George
Mason at home in their CAA opener. Old Dominion could still have a solid
argument for an at-large bid if it needs it (especially if it beats UAB,
Virginia Tech or both in the next week) and will end up playing a solid
non-conference schedule, but this really doesnít look like an NCAA team
right now, one blazing half against DePaul notwithstanding.
-Finally, weíd mention more about the West here, but
there hasnít been much to write about. The Pac-10 has rebounded some of
late but overall has been less than impressive. The Mountain West, as
mentioned, is slipping into the middle of D-I conferences. The WAC
hasnít really been much better, though Nevadaís rise into a top 25
program has been a great and quite uncovered story. The Wolf Pack have
been as good as Gonzaga the past 2+ years. The West Coast Conference is
in a serious rebuilding year. The Big West isnít horrible, but itís also
not as good as the past few yrs when Utah State and Pacific were lurking
in or near the national rankings, and the Big Sky has a national player
in Montana but not much else.
Games you canít or wonít watch but should
Thursday, December 22
CCNY at LIU. Is this 1949 all over again, with
Nat Holman and Clair Bee coaching? Nah, but it will be impossible for a
story to be written about this game without the two schoolsí one-time
national power status being mentioned.
Old Dominion at UAB. Former Sun Belt foes face
off. ODU still needs to do more in its non-conference schedule. This win
Wake Forest at Richmond. The Spiders,
featuring that Princeton motion offense, are one pesky bunch, as Old
Dominion found out a few nights earlier.
La Salle at Villanova. Because we love Big 5
games, and because the Explorers are off to a terrific start.
Illinois State at Indiana State. Looking
forward to catching the Trees on TV (Fox-Midwest on your DirecTV).
Dayton at Cincinnati. Bearcats demise hasnít
Friday, December 23
Iona at Kentucky. Gaels put their undefeated
record on the line. Kentuckyís size should be too much, but if itís notÖ
Indiana at Butler. Donít be surprised if the
Hoosiers drop their second straight in-state game on the road.
Colorado State at Hawaii. Two teams that could
be on or very near the bubble in March. Lack of fancy wins (save for
Hawaii beating Michigan State) means both teams need every win they can
Northern Iowa vs. Dayton. Panthers should be
in the top 25, certainly ahead of the likes of Iowa, N.C. State, Wake
Forest. Tough task for Dayton, playing two days in a row, but Flyers are
good enough to win both.
Tuesday, December 27
Massachusetts vs. St. Peterís at MSG. Finally
get a chance to see Keydren Clark this year. Peacocks arenít very good,
but MAAC teams have a recent history of making noise in the Holiday
Holy Cross at George Mason. The Crusaders are
coming on and will still give Bucknell some fits in the Patriot League.
Patriots are one of many CAA teams that has NIT written all over them.
Gonzaga at Memphis. Yes, everyone will likely
be watching this, but they should be.
Syracuse at Towson. This is a (wink wink) road
game (nudge nudge) for the Orangemen. Even though it isnít being played
in Towsonís home arena or even home city.
Rhode Island at Houston. Tom Pendersís past
meets Tom Pendersís present. Interesting road trip for the Rams.
Wednesday, December 28
Oral Roberts at Oklahoma. Golden Eagles could
salvage a somewhat disappointing (in national terms, anyway)
Southern Illinois at Murray State. Always a
good rivalry, good to see it finally being televised, albeit on ESPNU,
which isnít available in all areas.
Northern Iowa at Bradley, Missouri State at
Creighton, Indiana State at Wichita State. Big first night of
Missouri Valley play with some monster matchups. No way weíre suggesting
all of them will get in, but all six of these teams may be good enough
to make the NCAA Tournament.
St. Josephís at St. Maryís. Gaels are
struggling this year, but a rare home game against a national name may
perk them up.
Tennessee State at Iowa State. Cy Alexander is
getting the Tigers turned around, though TSU is probably a year away
from making serious noise in the OVC. Still, this could be close if the
Cyclones are having one of their strangely frequent off nights.
Wishing everyone a Merry ChristmasÖ