The Other 26: Week SixPosted by IRenko on December 31st, 2011
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on twitter @IRenkoHoops.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t expect St. Mary’s to be very good this year. Last year, they lost five of their last eight games, including a lackluster home loss to Kent State in the NIT first round. Over the offseason, they said goodbye to their unquestioned leader and star, Mickey McConnell. Although they started the season with a win over Northern Iowa at home, they followed that with a 12-point loss at Denver. Then came a string of victories against middling competition at best and a 13-point loss to Baylor. So coming into this past week, St. Mary’s had a lot to prove, as far as I was concerned. And, well, at a minimum they proved me wrong.
First was last Friday’s neutral floor matchup against Missouri State, a strong if not outstanding team (more on them down below). The Gaels handed them a decisive 77-61 defeat. So far, so good. But still, how would St. Mary’s fare against their prominent conference foes — BYU and Gonzaga — once the WCC season kicked off? Could they register a win against a top 30 team? Well the Gaels answered that question with authority Thursday night, posting their second straight 16-point win.
Mea culpa. St. Mary’s is, indeed, a very good team that has a chance to make some noise in March, as it did two years ago. But I owe them a bit more introspection than that. How, exactly, have the Gaels built their 12-2 record and top 25 Pomeroy rating?
- Stat sheet stuffers — Fifth-year senior forward Rob Jones and junior guard Matthew Dellavedova lead the team in scoring, but they do much more than that. Jones is an excellent rebounder who averages a double-double. Witness his 24 points and 15 boards against BYU. Dellavedova, meanwhile, is averaging 6.7 assists per game. Against Missouri State, he finished with 17 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. And against BYU, he 18 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, and four steals. Complete play from your best players helps stitch the fabric of a well-rounded team that is more than the sum of its parts.
- Offensive rebounding — In whipping up on Missouri State, St. Mary’s showed off an underrated asset — the ability to dominate a team on the glass. They hauled down approximately 90% of Missouri State’s missed shots and 30% of their own. The difference in offensive rebounding allowed them to take 12 more shots and cruise to victory. The Gaels didn’t let up against BYU. Although the Cougars are a very strong defensive rebounding team, St. Mary’s pulled down almost 40% of their own missed shots and 67% of BYU’s. On the season, the Gaels’ offensive rebounding percentage is 12 percent higher than their opponents’.
- Balanced production – The departure of McConnell may have produced a team that is more offensively balanced, but just as efficient, as last year’s team. In both of their wins this past week, four players finished in double figures. And that was without Clint Steindl, who averages nine points per game, but was out with injuries. Against BYU, Jones paced the team with 24 points, but Stephen Holt added 21 and Dellavedova 18. By contrast, in their loss to Denver, Jones and Dellavedova scored 21 and 20 each, but no one else posted more than six points.
- Improved defense — The Gaels’ shot-stopping ability has improved this year, as they have a much better defensive FG%. They didn’t show that as much against Missouri State and BYU, both of whom shot the ball at a reasonable clip. That makes one wonder whether this newfound defensive strength is sustainable against high-quality opponents, but it’s at least a start to build on.
After the updated Top 15, we recap the wild start to the MVC season, preview a New Year’s Eve feast, and delve into much more in the week that was and the week that will be.
Looking Back: Who Needs March for Madness in the MVC?
We knew the Missouri Valley Conference would be competitive. But who knew it would be this competitive? The MVC kicked off conference play this week with a head-spinning slate of results that made clear just how wide open things are in one of the best TO26 conferences in the country.
- Missouri State 77, Creighton 65 — Missouri State bounced back from a 16-point loss to St. Mary’s to stun Creighton on their own home floor. Doug McDermott scored 19 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, but it was the failure of his supporting cast that doomed the Bluejays. Starting guards Antoine Young, Grant Gibbs, and Jahenns Manigat were a combined 5-23 from the floor, while center Greg Echinique took just two shots and scored four points. As for the Bears, Kyle Weems’s season-high 31 points reminded America that it was him, and not McDermott, who was last year’s MVC POY and this year’s preseason POY. His heroics may not have been a surprise, but Anthony Downing’s career-high 26 points (on 11-14 shooting) certainly were. Just as we were starting to conceive of the MVC as a four-team race — among Creighton, Wichita St., Indiana St., and Northern Iowa — Missouri State has vaulted itself into the first tier.
- Drake 79, Indiana State 64 – Indiana State, the MVC’s defending conference tournament champion, was coming off of a big win over Vanderbilt and is expected to compete for the conference crown. But that didn’t matter one lick on Wednesday night, as Drake put a hurting on the Sycamores in their own gym. Freshman guard Karl Madison shot an incredible 9-9 from the field to lead the Bulldogs with 24 points, and three other starters chipped in with double figure scoring. It was a very different story for Indiana State, whose starters combined for just 26 points.
- Illinois State 65, Northern Iowa 61 – A couple weeks ago, Northern Iowa looked poise to leap into the Top 15 and was mentioned in the same breath as Creighton and Wichita State as a top MVC team with potential at-large aspirations. But then came a 17-point loss to Ohio on their home floor and on Thursday, they stumbled in their first conference game, losing at Illinois State. The Panthers put on a poor offensive display. Anthony James scored 21 points, but needed a grossly disproportionate 25 shots to get there. Meanwhile, Jake Koch was scoreless on 0-4 shooting and Johnny Moran finished with just six points, missing all four of his free throw attempts along the way. Illinois State had been at least a few spots removed from the discussion of conference contenders, but is slowly working itself into the picture. As they showed on Thursday, their recipe for success has been strong 3-point shooting, a high free throw rate, and tough defense.
Looking Back: Last Chance for Non-Conference Upsets
With the window for pre-March non-conference upsets closing, a few teams managed to sneak one in.
- Wagner 59, Pittsburgh 54 – Wagner’s defensive strength is generating turnovers and sure enough, they forced Pitt into 18 turnovers in just a 61-possession game — a 29.7% per possession percentage. But Wagner’s defensive weakness is rebounding and sure enough, they allowed Pitt to rebound almost 50% of their missed shots. Fortunately, the turnovers cancelled out the second chance shots, and the Seahawks were able to pull off the upset. They now head into NEC play as a favorite to win the conference.
- Hawaii 84, Xavier 82 (OT) – Tu Holloway back? Check. Mark Lyons back? Check. Playing a team ranked 214th in the Pomeroy ratings? Check. Easy win? Uh, not so much. Losses to Oral Roberts and Long Beach State with Holloway and/or Lyons absent were understandable if unfortunate. But the loss to Hawaii suggests that the fallout from the Cincy brawl took a toll on the Musketeers beyond the time lost to suspensions. On the other hand, maybe Hawaii has suddenly turned on a switch. The Rainbow Warriors followed up their improbable win over Xavier with a 75-68 victory over Clemson.
- Princeton 75, Florida State 73 (OT) — If the Seminoles never play another Ivy League team, it will be too soon. After losing to Harvard in an early-season tournament in November, Florida State was upended Friday night by last year’s other co-Ivy champion. Ian Hummer had one of the lines of the week — 25 points and 15 rebounds in 53 minutes of action. The junior forward was an important contributor last year, but with the graduation of Dan Mavreides and Kareem Maddox, he’s become an even greater focus of the Tigers’ offense. According to Ken Pomeroy, he uses 32.7% of their possessions (11th in the country) and takes 33% of their shots (31st in the country). Incidentally, while Harvard is the clear favorite to win the Ivies, don’t assume that they’re a lock. Princeton and Penn both look dangerous, and Yale, which dealt Harvard its only non-Princeton loss last year, is lurking.
Looking Back: Trading Places
Some teams are on the rise, while others are headed in the wrong direction.
- Drexel 77, Fairfield 69 – Is Drexel finally starting to put it together? The CAA preseason favorite lost four of their first six games, including ugly defeats to Norfolk State on a neutral floor and at Delaware to kick off conference play. But since then, they’ve won five straight, and the most recent win over the Stags is the most impressive yet. Senior star Samme Givens led the way, exploding for a career-high 31 points on 13-16 shooting and adding nine rebounds, three assists, and two steals. The Dragons have a tune-up on Saturday against lowly St. Francis (PA) before heading into a crucial conference showdown at upstart Georgia State on Monday night.
- North Dakota State 96, Oakland 69 — NDSU served notice that they’re a team to be reckoned with in the Summit League, as they pounded one of the preseason conference favorites. The Bison shot 64.4% from the field, including 12-20 from three-point range, and point guard Lawrence Alexander dished out 10 assists. Oakland star Reggie Hamilton scored 24 points, but needed 20 FGAs and 7 FTAs to get there. The most impressive fact about the Bison is that it starts four freshmen and one sophomore. Out of 345 Division 1 teams, they are ranked 340th in experience. It’s almost unheard for such a young team to compete for a mid-major conference champions. Yet coach Saul Phillips has them doing just that. This will be a fascinating story to watch.
- Temple 87, Buffalo 85 (OT) — How do you shoot 55.2% from the field, hold your opponent to 36.4% shooting and still manage to lose? Well you turn it over 21 times and give up 16 offensive rebounds, allowing your opponent a whopping 17 more field goal attempts. That’s how Buffalo just barely missed upsetting Temple on the road. In the process, they wasted an outstanding performance from their leading scorer, sophomore forward Javon McCrea, who scored 28 points on 12-16 shooting. Still, the Bulls can take solace in the fact that they look a lot better this year than they were expected them to be. Led by the interior play of McCrea and Mitchell Watt, they are genuine threat in the MAC’s loaded east division. As for Temple, they can’t be happy with scraping together an overtime win over a visiting MAC team. They showed their lack of depth as only six players put in more than eight minutes in a 45-minute game. And they followed it up with an even more uninspiring win, barely squeaking past a mediocre Delaware team on Friday night, 66-63.
- Belmont 79, Marshall 74 — In the second game between these teams in 10 days, Belmont turned the tables on Marshall. Down 13 with 4:50 to go, Marshall staged a furious rally and had a chance to tie it on a Dago Pena 3-pointer with 29 seconds left. But Pena missed, and Belmont sealed the win at the free throw line. The big difference from the teams’ prior meeting is that Belmont held Marshall forward Dennis Tinnon to just four points on 2-7 shooting after scoring 24 points a week and a half ago.
Looking Forward: The TO26 New Year’s Eve Bash
This bounty of great matchups will help us all ring in 2012.
- Gonzaga at Xavier (12/31, 8 PM) – This is a premier matchup between two teams that have moved past the “mid-major” label despite playing in non-power conferences. The Musketeers are hoping to put the fallout of the Cincy fight — and the three losses that followed — behind them with a big win. To do so, they’ll need their top-notch 3-point defense to hold off Gonzaga’s array of shooters, led by freshman sensation Kevin Pangos. For their part, the Zags’ guards will put to the test trying to keep up with Holloway and Lyons. This is a game that favors Xavier, but for any lingering effects from the turmoil of the past couple weeks.
- Creighton at Wichita St. (12/31, 6 PM) – Despite Creighton’s loss to Missouri State, this is still a matchup between the MVC’s two premier teams. The Shockers have a balanced offense that can beat you in several ways. Five different players average double figures in scoring, and a sixth averages more than nine points per game. The Bluejays, on the other hand, are extremely dependent on McDermott. He is a great player and averages nearly 25 points per game, but only one of his teammates has a scoring average higher than nine points. This can be a real problem, as Creighton found out last week (see above). Wichita State also does a very good job of taking away the three-point shot, which Creighton relies on heavily. Throw in a home crowd that is likely to be rocking from start to finish, and you have to give the Shockers the edge.
- St. Louis at New Mexico (12/31, 9 PM) – St. Louis hasn’t had much competition this entire month, but they’ll have their hands full on their to The Pit to face a New Mexico team that has been very impressive of late. Both teams are great defensively, each ranking in the top 13 in the nation in defensive efficiency. They’ll have similar challenges — to halt each other’s three-point attack and to contain the interior scoring of St. Louis’ Brian Conklin and New Mexico’s Drew Gordon. If there’s an Achilles heel to be exploited, it may be the Bilikens’ mediocre defensive free throw rate. Led by point guard Kendall Williams, the Lobos have a penchant for getting to the free throw line.
- St. Joseph’s at Harvard (12/31, 4 PM) – Both teams will have something to prove at Lavietes Pavilion. The nationally-ranked Crimson have hung their hats on a win over Florida State in the Battle 4 Atlantis, but while they’ve otherwise been consistent, they haven’t beaten anyone else of note. Saint Joe’s is streaking, having registered recent wins over Villanova and Creighton. A road win against Harvard will solidify their status as an A-10 contender. The Hawks have a very good chance of scoring the “upset.” Their frontline could give Keith Wright fits, and they tend not to put teams on the free throw line, where Harvard thrives. But as the Crimson showed against FSU, they don’t need to score to win. They’re a much-improved team defensively, and they’ll have the edge if they contain the inside-out combo of Langston Galloway and C.J. Aiken.
Looking Forward: Six More to Keep an Eye On
- Robert Morris at Ohio (1/2, 7 PM) — This is an important test for the Bobcats. RMU is coming off of a disappointing drubbing at Memphis, but they’re not at all a bad team and will be looking for some momentum as they head into conference play. They also have two strengths that could exploit Ohio’s defensive weaknesses — offensive rebounding and getting to the free throw line. But they’ll need to a better job of taking care of the ball against an Ohio squad that generates lots of turnovers.
- Vermont at Stony Brook (1/2, 7 PM) — Stony Brook is the America East preseason favorite, but Vermont has the conference’s highest Pomeroy rating. Find out what happens when these two indestructible forces collide on Monday night! In all seriousness, keep an eye on whether Vermont can take care of the ball and defend the glass. If they can, they’ll have a good chance of pulling an important road victory.
- Oral Roberts at Oakland (1/3, 7 PM) / North Dakota St. at Oral Roberts (1/5, 8:05 PM) — Summit League favorite Oral Roberts kicks off a three-game gauntlet against its three biggest competitors with a visit to rival Oakland on Tuesday. Two days later, they host upstart North Dakota State. (And two days after that, South Dakota State, which knocked off Oakland on Friday night.) This week will go a long way to telling us whether ORU will be able to run away with the league crown or will have to scrap for every inch on the way to the top.
- Georgia St. at VCU (1/4, 7:30 PM) — It’s time to find out if Georgia State is for real. They were picked to finish second-to-last in the CAA’s preseason poll and started the season with three losses. But as first-year coach Ron Hunter has settled in, the Panthers have elevated their game, winning nine straight and earning the second highest Pomeroy rating in the conference. The highest rating? That would belong to VCU, a team you may have heard of recently. Last year’s Final Four participants lost four senior starters, but they’ve bounced back nicely behind the stellar play of senior Brad Burgess and that pressure defense that we all fell in love with last March.
- Indiana St. at Northern Iowa (1/4, 8 PM) – Creighton and Wichita State may headline this week’s MVC slate, but this bout between the other two teams expected contenders makes for a strong undercard. Both will be trying to bounce back from disappointing losses. The Panthers should be favored, in part because their offense is so reliant on 3-pt shooting, an area of defensive weakness for Indiana State.