College Basketball: 5 Things We Learned This Week

December 30th, 2008

Kevin McNeill's weekly 5 Things column breaks down what's important in the world of college basketball.


This week, we learned that...


1) Butler is not exactly rebuilding


After Butler lost four starters from last year’s 30-win campaign, including Horizon League player of the year Mike Green, AJ Graves, and Drew Streicher, the Bulldogs were projected in the preseason to finish a lowly fifth in the League.  Butler was supposed to be starting a rebuilding project, involving a core of talented but underdeveloped freshmen that would be a least a year away from returning to the postseason.


Instead, they are right where they left off after last year.  They are 10-1 for the third consecutive season, and nationally ranked after an upset of # 12 Xavier in Cincinnati. 


A team that starts three freshmen and a sophomore has showed remarkable grit under pressure.  After Xavier’s Derrick Brown nailed a three to bring the Musketeers back to within three points with less than four minutes remaining, Butler held Xavier to just one field goal for the rest of regulation and calmly made 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch to put the game away.   


Freshman Gordon Hayward has been outstanding so far, scoring 25 points against Ohio State (and barely missing an off-balance three at the buzzer that would have tied the game) and putting up 19 on Xavier.  Fellow freshman Shelvin Mack has shown consistent improvement, and is currently seventh in the Horizon in assists, and twelfth in scoring.  He’s also hit his last 19 free throws.  Finally, Matt Howard, the lone returning starter from last season, is not letting up his aggressive play, pulling down no less than nine offensive rebounds against Xavier. 


This is all a tremendous credit to head coach Brad Stevens, the second year coach who replaced Todd Lickliter, after he left for Iowa.  The 32 year old prodigy and former Butler assistant is just eight years removed from being a marketing assistant for Eli Lilly and Company before deciding that he’d rather make a career in basketball.    


He now has 40 wins in his first 45 games as head coach; with a young team that no one thought would be within shouting distance of respectability this year.  Should this hold up, if he’s not a coach of the year finalist at the end of the season, then something is seriously wrong.



2) The Big East is still the nation’s strongest conference, and one of the strongest ever


The Big East in all likelihood will put 10 teams into the NCAA Tournament in March, possibly even 11.  The record for most teams any conference has sent to the Dance is eight, set by … the Big East - twice – in 2006 and again last season. 


The Conference currently has four teams in the Top 10, eight teams in the latest coaches poll, and seven in the AP - with West Virginia knocking at the door with their walloping of Ohio State Saturday in Columbus. 


To be sure, there are clear vulnerabilities.  UConn was completely listless at home against Georgetown Monday, getting outhustled on almost every possession.  Pitt still has much to prove after its ugly win over Florida State, the first of three road games culminating with a huge showdown at Georgetown.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine any Big East team beating North Carolina right now.  But overall, there are at least nine teams (UConn, Pitt, Georgetown, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Louisville, Marquette, Villanova, and West Virginia), particularly the Hoyas, that appear to be a legit threat to be an Elite Eight team or better, and, barring injury, will only improve as they beat up on each over the next couple of months. 



3) Some disappointing BCS teams aren’t NIT bound just yet


After some particularly ugly losses recently, there has been plenty of talk in local media outlets of several bubble teams from major conferences a year ago already seeing their bubble burst this season.    


First, it is important to keep in mind that the NCAA Selection Committee of late has put a lot of emphasis on how teams play during the final ten games of the regular season.  Strength of schedule has also played a large factor, to the detriment of many upstart mid-major programs that have no control over the quality of teams in their conference, but to the benefit of teams in the Big 6.


Second, just like last year, many mid-major conferences will likely only send only one or two teams to the NCAA Tournament, leaving more at large berths for the Big 6.  For example, the Missouri Valley Conference could once again be a one-bid league.  The Mountain West could get as few as two teams in, ditto the A-10, C-USA and the WCC.  The Sun Belt will be almost assured to send only one representative to the Big Dance, even though South Alabama received a surprise at-large berth last season. 


All this means that programs such as Virginia Tech, Washington State, USC, Iowa, even Seton Hall (with losses to IUPUI and James Madison) are not out of contention for an at-large berth yet, and don’t even need a miracle to get there.  Seton Hall for example will begin a stretch Tuesday at Syracuse that will see them play six out of their next seven games against ranked opponents, three of them on the road.  Virginia Tech will close the season with home and aways with Florida State, on the road against Clemson and home games against Duke and UNC.  Both teams will have a strong strength of schedule rating at season’s end, and corresponding RPI, which means just a high quality win or two could propel them to the NCAA Tournament, even with a .500 conference record or worse.


Of course a few upsets in conference tournaments, Butler losing the Horizon championship for example, would make this all moot.  But for now, fans of mediocre major conference programs still have plenty to root for.



4) The next Hampton or Coppin State could be lurking


Portland State made a respectable showing Monday after stumbling out of the gate against Baylor in Waco, and has proven they can be dangerous after beating a Gonzaga team that was clearly overlooking them last week.


The Niagara Purple Eagles have won four straight road games, including victories over South Florida and St. Bonaventure.  In addition, although the Wildcats were admittedly injured and tired after playing three games in six days, Niagara still played Villanova very tight throughout the game on their own court in November.


Bobby Cremins not only notched his 500th career win this season, but has his College of Charleston Cougars looking like they may return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in ten seasons. The Cougars, out of the Southern Conference, have already handed South Carolina their only loss of the season and played Davidson to the wire Monday in front of a sold-out crowd, roaring back to within 2 from 12 down with under four minutes to play only to falter at the end. 


Sporting a pair of up-and-coming sophomores, Andrew Goudelock and Antwaine Wiggins (who hit the game-winner against Winthrop), and senior leaders down low in Jermaine Johnson and Dustin Scott, the Cougars are looking like the high seed no one will want to play come March.



5) Its the most wonderful time of the year, except for college basketball


The holiday season is a time to get together with family and friends, eat too much, enjoy some eggnog and, for sports fans, to enjoy some quality college hoops.  Like Minnesota beating up on High Point, Missouri eking out a 50 point win over SIU Edwardsville, and Marquette hammering Presbyterian (who has been cashing in on the guaranteed money this year, already playing Duke, Georgia, Clemson, and South Carolina).


In fact, since last week’s column, the only matchup of nationally ranked teams came in Monday’s Big East showdown between UConn and Georgetown.  Just about every other ranked team has feasted on holiday cupcakes.


But better times are ahead.  There’s the Michigan State–Minnesota matchup on Wednesday, followed by Villanova-Marquette on New Year’s Day.  There’s also a great day on tap for Saturday with Pitt-Georgetown, Ohio State-Minnesota, Tennessee-Kansas and BYU-Wake Forest.