The Other 26: Week EightPosted by IRenko on January 20th, 2012
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.
TO26 is back after a one-week hiatus, and do we have a doozy of a column for you. Today we take a look at the race for the top in every single non-power conference. We categorize each conference based on the number of contenders who have emerged after the first 2-3 weeks of conference play. Which conference looks like a fight between five legitimate contenders? Which conferences seem to be just one team’s to lose?
In our breakdown, we focus not just on the top of the W-L standings, but dig into the team’s non-conference performances, their specific results and their remaining schedules to get to a true picture of which teams are likeliest to take home a regular season crown. (Note that for our purposes, we have ignored the two-division setup in some conferences.)
But first, the updated Top 15.
Now on to our conference reviews …
Five Team Battle Royale
CAA — After a brutal 2-4 start to their season, preseason favorite Drexel (5-2) has turned things around, winning 11 of their last 12. That includes a home sweep of perennial contenders and recent Cinderellas George Mason (6-1) and VCU (5-2). Georgia State (5-2) is the conference’s biggest surprise. After being picked to finish 11th in the preseason poll and starting the year 0-3, the Panthers reeled off 11 straight, including wins over Drexel and VCU, before losing narrowly at George Mason. After a loss at Northeastern on Wednesday, skeptics may wonder whether they might start to fade, but for now, they should be taken seriously. Old Dominion (6-1) rounds out the top 5 here, as the Monarchs are tied for first at the moment, but they’ve faced a lighter schedule than the other teams in this group.
Four Team Scrambles
- Atlantic 10 — Xavier (4-1) seems to have bounced back from its mid-season, post-brawl slide, and they now sit atop the conference. But they’ve yet to post a win over any of their strongest conference competition, which includes: the volatile Temple Owls (2-2), who lost at Richmond 10 days after beating Duke; the St. Louis Bilikens (2-2) who had a strong non-conference season but still have much to prove in the A-10; and the Dayton Flyers (3-1), who kicked off their A-10 season with back-to-back wins over Temple and St. Louis and will be looking to add Xavier’s scalp on Friday.
- Conference USA — Memphis (3-1) has the talent to run away with the conference, but they got nipped at Central Florida (3-1) on Wednesday on a late three-point play by Keith Clanton. As a result, they’ve yet to break out of a pack that includes UCF, Marshall (4-0), and Southern Mississippi (3-1). These four are collectively 14-3 in the conference, and the three losses were all to each other and by the slimmest of margins — Marshall over UCF by 1, and Memphis over Southern Miss by 2, and UCF over Memphis by 1.
- Horizon — Wisconsin-Milwaukee sits atop the standings for the moment with a 6-1 record. Their only loss is at Butler (5-3), whom, despite its three league losses, I consider to be a genuine threat for the regular season championship. After the last two years, is anyone prepared to count them out? In between UWM and Butler are Cleveland State (5-2), which entered league play as the favorite, but took a bad loss to Youngstown State at home, and Valparaiso (6-2), which dealt Cleveland State its second loss last weekend. After losing three key starters, the Crusaders were not expected (by this writer anyway) to compete for the league crown, but here they are without a single senior in the rotation.
- Mid-American — All of the action here is in the East Division, where the MAC’s four best teams — Ohio (2-2), Akron (3-1), Buffalo (2-2), and Kent State (2-2) — have been beating up on each other. Ohio started the year with a 12-1 mark, but 2012 has not been kind to them, as they’ve dropped three of five, including losses at Bowling Green and Akron. Upon beating Ohio to go to 3-0, Akron promptly lost at Buffalo. Buffalo, in turn, has lost to Ohio, but also has a solid win over Kent State, whose only other loss is to Ohio. Got that?
- Northeast — Long Island (7-0) leads the group with an undefeated mark, but they haven’t beaten anyone of consequence since a December 1 win over Wagner (6-1), whose upset at Pitt sent them on an 8-game winning streak. The rematch between the Blackbirds and Seahawks is this Saturday, and odds are that Wagner grabs a share of first place at home. Indeed, I would consider Danny Hurley’s boys to be the favorite at this point. Rounding out the NEC’s contending quartet are Central Connecticut State (6-1) and Robert Morris (5-2).
Three Team Races
- Moutain West — What I expected to be a two-team race coming into the season has been upended entirely by San Diego State, which has simply picked up where it left off last year, despite losing four starters. After a stellar non-conference season, the Aztecs kicked off conference play by beating preseason favorites UNLV and New Mexico, the latter on the road. They may be the most surprising team in all of college hoops this year. Of course, the wins were close ones, and neither the Runnin’ Rebels nor the Lobos are expected to crumble and fade after just one week of conference play. This season may yet match last year’s for excitement.
- WCC — I identified this as the most exciting conference race in last week’s edition of That’s Debatable. The three-way battle among St. Mary’s (7-0), Gonzaga (5-1), and BYU (5-2) is fun to watch. The Gaels clearly have the early edge, as they held home court with convincing wins over each of their foes. BYU, meanwhile, fell off the pace a bit with an upset loss to Loyola Marymount on Thursday night. The league is deep enough that none of the big three can afford to take a night off. The Cougars will try to right the ship when they host St. Mary’s and Gonzaga in back-to-back contests on 1/28 and 2/2.
- America East — Stony Brook (5-1) had won six straight before falling to Boston University (5-1) this past weekend, putting the Terriers in the driver’s seat for the regular season championship. BU has had an up and down year (4 losses, then 4 wins, then 7 losses, now 4 wins), but they might be putting it together just in time to fulfill their preseason expectations. Not far behind the leaders is Vermont (5-2), about whom my most favorite, if trivial, fact is that they feature a freshman named Four McGlynn. That’s up there with Humpty Hitchens as one of my favorite names in college hoops.
- Southland — The better teams are in the west division, where UT Arlington (5-0), UT San Antonio (4-1), and Lamar (2-2) have been duking it out. UT Arlington has the edge here, having won at Lamar last week, but it’s early enough for Pat Knight’s crew to rebound. UT San Antonio gets its first shot at UT Arlington on February 1.
Two Team Duels
- MVC — After a wild early start to the conference season, it appears that the cream has risen to the top. Creighton (7-1) and Wichita State (7-1) share first place, a statement that would not have surprised preseason prognosticators. Only Drake (yes, Drake) is as close as two games off of their pace. The Bluejays and Shockers solidifed their spots at the top with big road wins this week, as Creighton nipped Missouri State and Wichita State edged Northern Iowa. Creighton won the first head-to-head meeting in Wichita, and the rematch in Omaha on February 11 is shaping up to be a must-see game.
- WAC — Nevada (4-0) and New Mexico State (4-0) seem to have booted Utah State from its three-year perch at the top of the league, each team posting a win over them last week. NMSU is led by senior forward and double-double machine Wendell McKines, while Nevada relies on a balanced attack fueled by the all-around play of point guard Deonte Burton (15.5 ppt, 33.9% assist rate), the sharpshooting of Malik Story (51% 3-point FG), and the athleticism of wing Olek Czyz.
- Big West — At the start of the year, it looked like Long Beach State (6-0) and UC-Santa Barbara (4-1) would be going toe-to-toe for the conference crowd, led by their respective Wooden Award candidates, Casper Ware and Orlando Johnson. But LBSU enjoyed a competitive non-conference season and is off to a 6-0 start in the Big West, while UCSB was mediocre in non-con play and has already dropped a conference game to UC Riverside. As a result, LBSU has edged in front as the favorite to take home the conference title. But UCSB will have a chance to reset things when the two teams face off in Santa Barbara on Saturday night.
- Sun Belt — Middle Tennessee State (7-0) and Denver (5-1) were expected to win their respective Sun Belt divisions. While MTSU has ridden a stingy defense to an undefeated mark, Denver was tripped up against Arkansas Little Rock, with whom they’re tied for the division lead. Still, the Pioneers and their efficient Princeton offense are more likely than not to win the West. The two teams will face off in their only season meeting on February 4.
- Patriot League — A few weeks ago, I would’ve expected the Pat League to be in the next section with Lehigh (2-2) running away from the pack. But the Mountain Hawks have faltered twice early in league play, including to Bucknell (4-0) at home on Wednesday. Each team boasts one of the top two players in the league, each of whom has a player of the year title to his name and both of whom are just juniors: Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum (20.9 ppg, 5.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists) and Bucknell’s Mike Muscala (15.8 ppg, 9.2 rebounds).
- SWAC — Alabama State (4-1) and Mississippi Valley State (5-0) were picked one and two in preseason polls, and they remain one and two, although MVSU may have flipped the order a bit with a 7-point win over ASU early in conference play.
One Team Chases
- Summit League– Undefeated Oral Roberts (9-0) has knocked off each and every conference foe, as they hit the halfway point of the league season. Dominique Morrison has been outstanding, averaging 24.5 points per game over the past month. During that time, his FG shooting and 3-pt shooting have both been in the 60 percent range.
- Atlantic Sun — This year’s Belmont squad (6-1) probably isn’t as good as last year’s, but they’re still the class of the A-Sun. Their final game of the year, at second-place Mercer, is their biggest test left.
- Ivy League — Harvard (1-0) is widely expected to walk away with the Ivy League crown (and the attendant NCAA Tournament berth), and they are no doubt the prohibitive favorite. But it may prove tougher than conventional wisdom suggests. Although last year’s nemesis Princeton is off to a bad 0-2 start, both Yale and Penn are good enough to make the 14-game tournament uncomfortable for the Crimson. Yale, which dealt Harvard its only non-Princeton league loss last year, is led by 6-10 center Greg Mangano, who leads the league in both scoring (19.5 ppg) and rebounding (10.3 rbg). Second in scoring? That would be Penn’s own senior star, point guard Zack Rosen who also leads the league in assists (6.1 apg).
- MAAC — Iona (6-1) remains the team to beat in the MAAC, although Manhattan, who gave the Gaels their sole loss, is nipping at their heels. Iona’s efficient offensive attack — led by one of the best assist men in the country in Scott Machado and the 70% 2-pt FG% of forward Michael Glover — should see them through to a conference crown. But their remaining schedule is somewhat challenging — road trips to Manhattan and Loyola (MD) and two games against preseason number two Fairfield.
- Southern — Davidson’s thumping of Charleston Thursday night left no doubt that they’re the team in the SoCon. As they showed the nation in upsetting Kansas, the Wildcats (7-0) have an impressively efficient offense. It also helps to be the best free-throw shooting team in the nation (81%).
- Big South — UNC-Asheville (8-1), the preseason favorite, took control of the conference in the past week and a half with wins against their two primary threats, Campbell and Coastal Carolina. They slipped a bit on Thursday night, losing to Charleston Southern at home, showing that it’s quite possible that one of the three “C” teams could catch them by season’s end. But for now, they remain the clear favorite.
- Big Sky — By now, you’ve probably heard of Damien Lillard, the dynamic Weber State (6-0) guard who leads the nation in scoring at 25.5 ppg. Lillard’s impressive stat line doesn’t stop with his point total. His turnover rate is less than 10 percent, his assist/turnover ratio almost 2, he shoots 46 percent from three-point range, and he knocks down more than 90 percent of his free throws. He is, quite simply, one of the most dominating players in the country, and his team is following suit in the Big Sky. Their easy 16-point whipping of Montana, the second-best team in the conference, made it clear as day that they have little competition for the conference crown.
- Ohio Valley — Murray State’s margin of victory has started to slide, winning by just eight and six in its last two games. What does that mean for purposes of the regular season race? Not much. Maybe the Racers (7-0) will suffer a loss, or even two, but they are running away with OVC regular season title.
- MEAC — Norfolk State (6-0) solidified its place as the team to beat with a sweep of Morgan State and Coppin State on its road trip to Baltimore last weekend. If Morgan State can recover from the suspension of Todd Bozeman, this may turn into a two-team race again. But for now, NSU, led by the inside offense and shotblocking defense of 6-10 senior Kyle O’Quinn, looks headed for a conference title.
Looking Forward: Conference Contention
Saturday will be full of key games for teams fighting at the top of their conference standings:
- New Mexico at UNLV (1/21) — This is a critical game for both teams, as they will each try to bounce back from a week one loss to San Diego State. The loser will drop to 1-2 in the MWC, an early hole that could be touch to escape for a run to the conference title. UNLV’s three-point shooting and the Lobos’ ability to get to the line may be the determining factors.
- LBSU at UCSB (1/21) — The matchup between Casper Ware and Orlando Johnson should get some attention even from the national media. UCSB has dashed LBSU’s Tournament hopes in the last two conference tournament championships, and you can bet the 49ers are looking for a modicum of revenge. It could be tough to find, though, on UCSB’s home floor.
- Marshall at Southern Miss (1/21) — Marshall is undefeated in conference play, but this will be their first real road test. Will USM be able to keep Marshall off the offensive glass? Will they improve their 2-pt FG% against the Thundering Herd’s mediocre inside-the-arc defense?
Looking Forward: Tough Week Ahead
Three conference leaders will be put to the test with back-to-back games against their leading competitors:
- Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Cleveland State (1/22) / Butler at Wisconsin-Milwaukee (1/26) — UWM relies on the three-point shot, but they don’t afford opponents the same luxury, as they have the best 3-pt defense in the country.
- Xavier at Dayton (1/21) / St. Louis at Xavier (1/25) — Tu Holloway appears to be back, as he’s notched double figures in scoring or assists in his last four games. And Mark Lyons has 38 points in the last two contests. This is Xavier’s chance to prove it’s as good as it looked pre-brawl.
- Long Island at Wagner (1/21) / Long Island at Robert Morris (1/26) — Long Island is almost as good at getting to the line as they are at keeping opponents off of it. Free throw shooting disparity is a big part of their game, and it certainly will be against Wagner and RMU, both of whom foul too much.