-With conference season starting the Missouri Valley is
likely going to slip back in the national conscious again for awhile, but
a few postscripts need to be added about the league that was the story of
the pre-conference season. Maybe the most impressive things about the
MVC’s rise to a spot in the top five conferences? 1) MVC teams only get
nine non-conference games as opposed to the 11-13 most biggies get,
meaning less chances to pad the winning percentage. 2) MVC teams don’t
have a spot at the table in what we like to call the November and December
“in-breeding” games. Those are the games where, when BCS schools aren’t
playing the Longwoods and Chicago States of the world, they usually play
other BCS-affiliated teams, the best to keep high RPI numbers within the
BCS leagues. The Big 12, not exactly known for challenging itself much out
of conference, has played 26 games against BCS schools. SEC schools have
played 37 such games, and this number is only as low as it is because some
league schools (ahem, Mississippi State) didn’t even attempt to schedule
anyone of difficulty, no matter what their conference affiliation. Heck,
the Big 10 and ACC played 11 games against each other just in the ACC/Big
10 Challenge; in contrast, MVC teams have a total of 15 games against ALL
6 BCS conferences. The Valley has compiled its sterling RPI numbers
without the help of the alliance among the football conferences.
-At the other end of the MVC’s rainbow is Conference
USA, which is getting flat-out hammered in the RPI game this year. The
numbers are staggering, and we won’t point them out with glee, as almost
every national head would. Those would be the same heads who tripped over
each other predicting the league’s demise when the Big East pillaged it,
while also declaring it a playground for Memphis. We didn’t believe that
was the case before the season, and we still think teams like UAB, UTEP
and Houston can win the conference in the future. This year, though, C-USA
will have to be satisfied if it somehow gets three teams into the NCAAs.
Memphis, UAB and Houston have top 50 RPIs. After that? Keep going down
your RPI sheet…and down…and down, all the way to around 200, where you’ll
finally find Texas-El Paso. SMU, Tulane and every other team in the league
are well into the 200s. Yee-ouch. Those are numbers normally reserved for
leagues like the MEAC and SWAC, not even a mid-level Division I
conference, much less one that should still be in the top 10.
Overall, Conference USA ranks 19th in the
RPI, behind the Southland Conference and just ahead of the Big Sky and
Patriot League. This news is certainly not good for the future seeding of
Memphis or the at-large chances of the Blazers or Cougars. A slim upside:
things may not be quite as bleak as they look at first glance. C-USA teams
still have a winning overall record in non-conference games, good news for
when league teams start playing each other. Alabama-Birmingham has been
playing like a top 25 team of late, and if they or Houston can somehow
upend Memphis, it could be the type of win to put either in the NCAA
field. Still, this season is almost certainly going to be the low point
for a league that should still be a lot better than it’s showing this
-Early in the season we thought the chances of Gonzaga
losing a WCC game were virtually nil, but we’re reconsidering now. As
should have been well documented by now, the Bulldogs have a bad habit of
playing to the level of their competition, a habit that will eventually
catch up to them. Furthermore, the rest of the WCC is starting to recover
from the massive personnel losses sustained after last season. Santa
Clara, San Diego, St. Mary’s and Portland are all teams that absolutely
could knock off the Zags at some point, though the Broncos and Gaels
already blew their best chances at home. Adam Morrison is the best player
in the country and the best college scorer in years, but GU still has
weaknesses-mostly on the interior after J.P. Batista. Foul trouble or one
hot performance by a team like Portland could tag the Zags with an L.
-The way to beat George Washington? Sloooooow the game
-As one who has always been quick to point out the Big
10’s shortcomings in past years (was it the Big 10 or Mediocre Eleven?) it
absolutely must be pointed out that the league is back up this year and
deserves its touting as one of the top conferences. Illinois and Wisconsin
are going to be there all year, Michigan State is overrated because of its
inconsistency, but when the Spartans play well (as they did against Boston
College, Wichita State and some others) they are a top five team. Ohio
State has been underrated most of the year and looks like a surefire NCAA
team, while Iowa and Indiana are also pretty safe bets-but not locks.
Still not taking Michigan or Minnesota to be anything more than NIT
championship contenders at this point, but that could change. If it
doesn’t, then the Big 10 likely will still have 6 legitimate NCAA tourney
teams. In this year of parity, that is saying an awful lot.
-The Temple-St. Joseph’s game on Sunday (a 59-57 Hawks’
win) was a classic-in other words, a typical Big 5 game. Back-and-forth
all the way until Robert Ferguson took Abdullai Jalloh’s missed airball
(was it a pass?) and put it in with two seconds to go. In addition to
noting the high level of play and the beauty of a 1 hour, 45 minute game
(more on that subject below), we would also like to thank TV announcers
Scott Graham and John Griffin for not overplaying the “goon” incident from
last year. If the game had been on ESPN, we can be assured it would’ve
been replayed as much as anything since…well, since another recent
incident involving a professional football team in Philadelphia. Instead,
the A-10 broadcast placed the event in its exact perspective; it didn’t
look like it was a big deal to the teams playing, particularly St. Joe’s,
so it shouldn’t have been a big deal to anyone watching the game, either.
At least it didn’t look like a big deal during the game. It’s unfortunate
that John Chaney had to reference the call in his post-game comments
questioning the officiating at the end.
-Count Indiana State as the first contender to be
swallowed up in the grinder that is the MVC. The Trees have lost six in a
row, and included in the losing streak was a loss at home to
Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, the definition of a bad loss. The Sycamores
were a long shot to be an at-large team even with their 8-0 start because
they still weren’t one of the five best teams in the Missouri Valley, but
almost all the benefits gained from beating Indiana were erased by losing
to the Mastodons (love writing that nickname). Look closer, though, and
you’ll find ISU was playing without David Moss, who may have been the MVC
MVP through December. Moss was injured in the Sycamores’ second league
game against Missouri State and will be out for most of January, an awful
break for a team that already was going to have to worry about its
confidence level after losing two straight Valley games. With its
struggles in recent years, it will be very easy for Indy State to slip
back to losing ways if someone doesn’t step up in Moss’s absence.
Credit also has to go to IPFW, where Dane Fife has done
a nice job in his first year. His team has played tough against some good
competition, losing close games against Loyola (Ill.), Michigan State,
Purdue and Notre Dame, the latter a two-point loss on December 18 that
should’ve gotten all future IPFW opponents’ attention.
-Really liking the way Wisconsin-Milwaukee is playing
right now. The Panthers’ Dec. 30 win at Montana has to be maybe the most
underappreciated win by a team this season. This is not the same team that
got blown away by Memphis in its opener. Boo Davis has developed into a
worthy scoring complement to Joah Tucker, and Adrian Tigert is one of the
most improved players in the country. This squad is starting to look
eerily similar to some of Bruce Pearl’s Panther teams.
-Liked seeing West Virginia upset Villanova, if for no
other reason than to underscore some of the stupidity of the national
polls thus far this year. The Mountaineers never deserved to drop out
after losing a few close games in November, and it certainly shouldn’t
have taken them so long to get back in. At the same time WVU was being
left out, teams like Wake Forest, N.C. State, Maryland, Arizona and
Oklahoma have stayed overrated for over a month, while the Syracuses and
North Carolinas of the world have also been recycled back into the
rankings. None have done anything to deserve moving up, most don’t even
deserve to be ranked, but there they are ahead of worthy teams like 14-1
(now 14-2) Air Force or Northern Iowa, which is solidly in the top 15 in
the RPI, yet not even very close to being ranked. With the Mountaineers
back in the rankings, the Panthers’ exclusion is the next egregious error
that needs to be corrected. Even after losing by a deuce to Creighton
(great road win for the Bluejays), UNI should still be ranked.
-We know coaches aren’t reading this column, but if
they were, we would plead with them to stop micromanaging games,
particularly in the final minutes. It’s bad enough in the middle of a game
when they’re liable to call timeout as soon as the opposing team scores
three baskets in a row; it’s excruciating at the end of the game,
particularly when some call time before not only offensive but defensive
possessions. Many of these times the games aren’t even in much doubt, but
it’s almost as if coaches feel they have a contractual obligation to call
timeout whenever possible in the last two minutes of a game. Do coaches
really distrust their players so much that they can’t count on them to
make a decision late in the game without their help? If so, then are they
really doing their jobs as coaches? Just something to think about…there
will always be some coaches that like to diagram plays in the final minute
of a nailbiter, but that’s as far as it should go, and it shouldn’t be
almost every single coach. The mantra of “letting the players decide the
games” is often one applied to officiating, but it is more applicable to
these end of game situations.
It would help if the NCAA would wise up and reduce the
number of timeouts allotted to each team. Something that should have been
done years ago and something we’ve been calling for a few years now, for
there is no logical reason in the world why teams need five timeouts per
game. Not when there are already four TV timeouts in each half, and not
when almost all of these timeouts are of the 30-second variety that aren’t
even useful for television commercial purposes. All the 30s do is disrupt
game flow just long enough to drive one crazy. A better idea would be to
give each team three full timeouts per game. These would be more useful
for the networks to pay their bills, and it would keep the action moving
and force coaches to keep their hands off a little more.
-Denver is a team we’ve followed closely here for the
last several years, and it continues its ascent up the Division I ladder.
Two years ago we noticed two things: 1) DU has a lot of potential, and 2)
the P.A. announcer for Pioneer games might have considered not introducing
the players but the spectators at some games, as puny as the gatherings
were. We’re happy to report that the DU program continues to improve and
is now one of the best in the Sun Belt Conference. Attendance? Hey, how
about that Sun Belt final appearance last year?…oh, attendance. Well…it’s
still a work in progress. Over 7,000 piled into Magness Arena as Denver
beat Wyoming last week, an impressive number for a school with around
5,000 students. A few nights later, though, just over 1600 were on hand
for a win over perennial conference heavy Louisiana-Lafayette. Those
numbers need to keep going up, because this is an exciting time for the
Pioneer program. As mentioned, Denver is one of the best teams in the Sun
Belt, it has one of the top big men in the country in Yemi Nicholson, and
the team is even receiving solid TV coverage with a number of its games
being shown on Fox Sports-Rocky Mountain. An eventual move out of the Sun
Belt into a more regionally sensible league would likely help future
attendance numbers, but in the meantime the DU program is making do quite
well with what it has.
-Speaking of Louisiana-Lafayette, Michael Southall is
back with the Ragin’ Cajuns. Hasn’t it been about five years since he last
played? (It had actually only been two.) The talented and oft-troubled big
man is back and playing well, averaging 15 points, eight rebounds and
almost four blocks a game on a typical ULL team. The Cajuns, per usual,
have talent-Dwayne Mitchell and Chris Cameron will also likely receive
all-conference consideration-and as usual played a tough non-conference
schedule and lost almost all of them, many by close scores. Also as is
their custom, the team should rebound to be a threat at the end of the
-Manhattan is at the top of the MAAC, Iona should be in
the young Jaspers’ tracks all season and Loyola (Md.) is one of the best
turnaround stories in the country. However, we’d like to note we’re happy
to see Canisius at 3-1 in the league, just a game out of first. Mike
MacDonald seems like one of the true nice guys in the sport, and the
Griffins’ program is still trying to recover from the death of Richard
Jones. Three wins in a row, all on the road, have raised the team’s record
this year to just 4-8, but as usual the Metro Atlantic is wide open in the
middle this year. We wouldn’t complain one bit to see Canisius make a run
into the first division.
-Quietly-and against the odds-a sound program has been
built in the independent ranks. Forget a blowout loss at Maryland last
week, more representative of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s rise to player
status in D-I was an overtime loss to Houston this past weekend, where the
Islanders nearly knocked off a team that has already beaten Arizona and
LSU this year. Former South Alabama coach Ronnie Arrow built the TAMU-CC
basketball team a few years ago literally from scratch, without a
conference and in a location that is one of Division I’s true outposts.
The Islanders (the school really is located on an island) won 20 games
last year and this season are 11-6 in what was supposed to be something of
a rebuilding year. Among the wins this year are TCU and South Florida, and
the six losses include the OT loss to Houston, a one-point defeat at
Missouri and a two-point loss to St. Mary’s. Last year’s victims included
Florida State and an Old Dominion team that won 28 games. Next year TAMU-CC
(a worse acronym to type than even IUPUI) finally gets a conference when
it joins the Southland, a move that can only be described as a win-win for
everyone. The SLC adds more juice to a basketball league that right now is
on the upswing, moving towards the middle of D-I conferences. The benefits
for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi are obvious; a chance at an automatic bid,
and the relief of not having to find 28 games to fill out a schedule every
-What is the deal with the hideously large logos some
schools put in the center of the court? Like the black road uniform fad
that just can’t seem to go away, this is another idea whose time has not
only not come, it never will. If the Rutgers ‘R’ at the center of the RAC
was any larger, the court dimensions would have to be altered.
-Following up on recent criticism of the Mountain West:
Air Force looks like the real deal; Colorado State does not. The Rams
started MWC play with losses at San Diego State and New Mexico. Not
befitting of a team with the Rams’ record. However, the Falcons looked
strong in taking apart BYU, then squeezed by the Aztecs to move to 14-1.
Even with a road loss to Wyoming on Wednesday, this team looks a lot like
the AFA team of two years ago that won the regular season title and earned
an at-large berth to the NCAAs. A similar path could be followed this
year, as the MWC regular season titleist rarely wins the tourney. Wins
over Miami (Fla.) and Georgia Tech will look good in March when comparing
the Zoomies with, say, a bubble ACC team. Despite the league’s relative
struggles, it is still good enough where a regular season title will
likely be good enough for an NCAA bid.
-The SWAC and MEAC’s ridiculous non-conference
schedules make it almost impossible to handicap them until about February.
As of Jan. 8, the leagues’ non-conference strength of schedules rank
second and third, respectively. (Remember that when arguing which teams
play the toughest schedules.) For as much as one can figure right now,
consider Southern and Delaware State to be favorites in their respective
leagues. Southern already has two road wins in the SWAC and looked good in
dismissing Grambling on Friday night. The school made a great coaching
hire when it lured Rob Spivery from conference rival Alabama State.
Spivery is responsible for pretty much all of the Hornets’ biggest moments
as a D-I school, and his teams were always contenders for the league
title. Hiring in-conference isn’t something you’ll see everyday, but
Spivery was a coach worth doing it for, and we’re expecting him to have
the Jaguars to be among the SWAC’s best for years to come.
Meanwhile, Delaware State got an early leg up in the
MEAC on Saturday by beating South Carolina State. The MEAC title chase
always goes through the Bulldogs, so this was a big win for Del-State.
Like almost all of its conference brethren, the Hornets spent November and
December barnstorming the country, and could battle conference mate Coppin
State for the honor of the toughest non-conference schedule in the
country. Delaware State played at UCLA, Maryland, Marquette, Bradley,
Michigan and Northwestern, actually got 11-3 Buffalo for a home game, and
played Kent State, Wichita State and Austin Peay on a neutral floor.
-Shocking score: UC Riverside 83, Pacific 71. Quite
possibly the Highlanders’ biggest upset since their 1988 win over Iowa,
when UCR was a Division II school and dusted off the Hawkeyes with a
then-unheard of 21 three-pointers. Riverside came into this season with a
new coach (David Spencer) who promised a revival of Paul Westhead’s Loyola
Marymount offense, only to more or less put that on hold when Spencer
found he didn’t have even a Per Stumer on his team, much less a Hank
Gathers, Bo Kimble or Jeff Fryer. (UCR did score 111 points against Puget
Sound…but gave up 115 in a loss to the NAIA school.) The Highlanders came
into the game at mighty Pacific playing better but still at 1-11; even in
a rebuilding year the Tigers were 9-4. Rickey Porter was the hero, though,
scoring 40 points, and Riverside impressively outrebounded the Tigers
37-23. A stunning-and deserved-victory for the Highlanders over the Big
West’s premier program, which rebounded nicely two nights later with a win
over Cal State-Fullerton.
-Watching Oklahoma struggle and knowing UC Riverside
intends on playing at breakneck speed whenever possible, one wonders if
Sooners forward Nate Carter wishes he hadn’t transferred from UCR, where
he could’ve been putting up monster (we’re talking Hank Gathers- or Xavier
McDaniel-like) numbers this year.
-Finally, when Myles Brand comes out of the NCAA
convention telling us that college sports need more commercialization, not
less, perhaps it really is time he quit the NCAA and concentrate full time
on his job portraying Dr. Neil Clark Warren on eHarmony.com commercials.
Games you can’t or won’t watch but should
Austin Peay at Murray State. Year-in and
year-out, one of the best conference rivalries because one or the other
usually wins the OVC. Looking forward to catching it on ESPNU.
NC-Wilmington at Drexel. Two of the FIVE teams
tied for the top spot in the CAA with one loss. Anyone who saw the Dragons
play in the preseason NIT has to be wondering how this team has lost six
Wright State at Youngstown State. Who would
believe these two are playing some of the best ball in the Horizon League
Washington State at UCLA. The Cougars’ win over
Washington suddenly makes Dick Bennett’s team much more interesting.
Saturday, January 14
St. Joseph’s at George Washington. Forget what
the polls say; with the preseason schedule GW played, the Colonials are no
lock for the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the Atlantic 10.
Virginia Commonwealth at Old Dominion. This
rivalry, which dates back to when both were in the Sun Belt, has become
perhaps the premier one in the CAA right now. The Monarchs are still a
very hard team to figure out.
Holy Cross at Bucknell. The Crusaders are the
type of team that could give the Bison fits in the Patriot League
St. Francis (N.Y.) at St. Francis (Pa.). Makes
Duke-North Carolina look like an appetizer.
Xavier at UNC-Charlotte. The 49ers are coming
around and are still a threat to win 20 games. The Musketeers are under
the radar for now, but that is going to change soon. X is a team no one is
talking about that is good enough to go a couple rounds in the NCAAs.
Tennessee at LSU. Another serious test for Bruce
Pearl’s team, which continues to impress.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Home
state bias is the main reason we list this one. UWGB is reloading this
year, but an in-state road game in front of 10,000 people will be a great
test for a Milwaukee team that should be battle-tested enough to handle
Northern Illinois at Akron. The MAC doesn’t have
a lot of headline-makers this year, but NIU has some good wins, and Akron
is a program that is lingering, seemingly ready to make a big splash any
time now. LeBron James’s former H.S. buddies have proven to be pretty good
players for the Zips.
Southern Illinois at Drake. The Salukis’ MVC
schedule is only going to get tougher. A tremendous contrast of defensive
styles; SIU’s sticky halfcourt man-to-man against the Bulldogs, who like
Missouri State at Wichita State. We know both
can beat everyone they’re supposed to, but one or the other-or both-needs
to start picking up some signature wins. Considering so many MVC teams
reside in the RPI top 50, there are plenty of such opportunities in
IUPUI at Oral Roberts. The only unbeaten team in
the Mid-Continent (the Jaguars) take on one of the most disappointing
teams in the country.
Monday, January 16
Hampton at Coppin State. The Eagles have a scary
won-loss record, with way more of the latter than the former, but we think
they still have a chance to contend in the MEAC.
Southern Illinois at Northern Iowa. The great
Kansas-Missouri rivalry will be shown on ESPN, but this is the game that
really belongs on Big Monday. The Egyptian Dogs are ugly to watch, but
boy, do they play defense. And win.
Niagara at Canisius. The battle for Buffalo. Not
surprisingly, the Purple Eagles have struggled this year after losing
studs like Juan Mendez and David Brooks from their NCAA team. Having
essentially just seven players isn’t helping, either.
Marquette at DePaul. Rivalry between old
independents. Just not convinced either are as good as big wins (the
Golden Eagles over UConn) or high RPI (Blue Demons) indicate.
Wednesday, January 18
LIU at St. Francis (N.Y.). The battle for
Brooklyn. These two schools are so close that the visitors walk to the
Pittsburgh at Rutgers. If the Panthers haven’t
lost yet before this one, we predict they will at the State University of
Bradley at Creighton. Taken way too long to
finally see the Bluejays on TV this year; it is just amazing what lengths
it seems the TV networks go to in order to ignore a program with such a
run of success. With the Braves’ talent, there is no way this team should
be barely over .500.