Has there been a more unpredictable start to the season in recent memory? A Preseason NIT final of Butler and Gonzaga...how many people picked that one? Butler, in wins over Indiana and Tennessee, has played stifling defense and got some timely baskets when needed. Their best offense of the three-game run to the final was in their overtime win against Notre Dame, a game in which the Fighting Irish shot 48% from the field themselves. Maybe being able to see that they can beat solid competition with offense and defense can be seen as a positive for the Bulldogs. As for the Bulldogs from Spokane, is Josh Heytvelt something else or what? He missed a lot of games the past two seasons due to injuries, so many people don't know of his actual skill set. Yes, a lot has been mentioned about him (especially early last season), but the average fan probably lost sight of him after he hurt himself in the Maui Invitational final against UConn. Well, he's back and healthy. Brandan Wright was able to do some things for UNC in the semifinal Wednesday night, but the Heels play as well as Tyler Hansbrough does, and Heytvelt did an excellent job of containing the preseason National Player of the Year candidate.
As for the Northeast, what on earth is going on? You have a lot of teams that one night look like they can't beat your local rec league team and the next night they look like they can play in the Final Four. How do you explain Providence losing to city rival Brown 51-41 (41 points??? Four nights after dropping 96 on Fairleigh Dickinson??? Amazing), then coming back to beat Boston College? Boston College, picked to finish 3rd in the ACC, has already lost to Vermont as well as the Friars. Manhattan, in a rebuilding year to tell you the truth, found a way to lose to New Jersey Tech, a program in its first year at the Division 1 level, yet they beat Hofstra. FDU knocked off Seton Hall for the first time in almost 40 years, and Rutgers shoots 19% AT HOME in losing to Kansas State.
Looking back on my preseason ranking of the teams in the NYC area, the one issue for the top two teams reared its ugly head in their defeats. Neither Hofstra or Marist would be considered outstanding on the glass, but at this point I would say that the Red Foxes have a better chance at improving on the interior as the season progresses. Ryan Stilphen and James Smith are two guys with size that have the ability to hold their own in the paint, but foul trouble could make things difficult for Matt Brady's bunch since there isn't much size off the bench. Miles Orman is an active body off the bench, but who's that fourth man that can provide a couple quality inside minutes from time to time? Despite Stilphen's foul trouble today, Marist was able to knock off Minnesota in the Old Spice Classic due in part to the 16 and 13 put up by Smith. It'll be interesting to see how the frontline performs against a much bigger Arkansas club Friday morning.
Hofstra desperately needs to find some inside help for Mike Davis-Sabb. After his 10.0 boards per game, no player for the Pride averages more than four per contest, and that number is shared by guards Loren Stokes and Antoine Agudio. Villanova made the perimeter-heavy lineup sexy last year, but don't forget that besides Will Sheridan Jay Wright could also count on the likes of Jason Fraser and Dante Cunningham for something inside. One post player alone can't hold up a team on the boards for the long haul. But don't jump off the Pride bandwagon just yet. This is a tough part of the schedule for Hofstra, with the game at Charlotte and the Great Alaska Shooutout appearance, where they lost to Hawaii Thanksgiving night. Tom Pecora is an excellent coach who should be able to find a way to offset their current frontcourt deficiencies.
After their season-opening loss at Duke, Columbia has won four straight heading into their home tilt with Stony Brook Saturday afternoon. Keep an eye on this one, given the fact that the Lions are playing well and Stony Brook has won on the road at Penn State and Colgate so far this year. Of course, the Seawolves lost their home opener to Navy, giving up 87 points to the Middies, but they should improve on last season's 4-24 record. Also, it's possible that Iona could start out the year 0-5, with games at Rhode Island and Fordham coming up for the Gaels. But when you have to replace as much scoring at Jeff Ruland lost to graduation after last season, a slow start is to be expected.
Lastly, I will admit that I was looking to the two games in the Preseason NIT for Fordham as a chance for the Rams to show that this isn't the "same old Fordham", that they're ready to consistently compete at or near the top of the Atlantic 10. The loss to Tennessee wasn't bad (78-71), and they weren't exactly expected to win that game either. But scoring 49 in their loss the following night to Belmont showed that the Rams have some work to do. But hey, it's early, and there's plenty of time for all of these teams to work out the kinks and play consistent basketball. I guess I'd become accustomed to seeing the "haves" whip the "Have-not" on a nightly basis this time of the year. Well, like George Mason last March, we're getting the message that things are a little different these days.
And in the score of the week, South Virginia outscored VMI 92-90 in the second half of their game November 20th. Unfortunately for them, they lost the game 144-127.