The Other 26: Week OnePosted by IRenko on December 1st, 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.
Greetings, readers, and welcome back for another year of The Other 26, RTC’s weekly foray into the mid-major world, now securely ensconced on a microsite that shares its name. College hoops seemed to start earlier this year than it ever has, producing a November that was packed with much more action than the few preseason tournaments to which old geezers like me are accustomed. That means that there is quite a bit of ground to cover, and precious little time to waste. Let’s get right to it after the jump, with our first installment of the TO26 Top 10, a look back at which teams caught our eye with strong (and not so strong) starts, and a look forward to this week’s most compelling TO26 match-ups.
Looking Back: Strong Starts
- The Rest of the Mountain West – Coming into the season, UNLV and San Diego State received well-deserved hype and top 20 rankings. But it’s clear that they’re going to have quite a bit of competition in conference play. New Mexico has barely shown the effects of losing their frontcourt tandem Drew Gordon and A.J. Hardeman. They have notched several solid wins en route to a 7-0 record, defeating UConn, George Mason, Davidson, and Mercer — all teams with realistic NCAA Tournament hopes. Fresh off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years, and with a cast of strong returnees and transfers, Colorado State entered the season with reasonably high expectations. But their ability to adjust to new coach Larry Eustachy remained an open question. Well, question answered. The Rams are undefeated at 5-0, posting wins over strong mid-major teams Montana and Denver and pounding the Washington Huskies by 18 points on the road. But, wait! The MW’s depth does not end there. Leon Rice’s Boise State squad, which plays just one senior, is off to a 5-1 start and is coming off of a 13-point win over Creighton on the road. Meanwhile, Wyoming and Air Force are a combined 13-1 on the season. Throw in competitive newcomers Nevada and Fresno State, and UNLV and San Diego State may not have an easy conference game all year.
- Gonzaga – Gonzaga came into the season with a Top 25 ranking, so they’ve not exactly snuck up on anyone. But they’ve nonetheless impressed, collecting wins over West Virginia, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Davidson by an average of more than 20 points. Throw in three more lopsided victories, and the Zags are sitting pretty at 7-0 and little sweat to show for it. Kelly Olynyk has emerged from his redshirt year as a genuine frontcourt force. Along with Elias Harris and Sam Dower, he gives the Bulldogs three skilled, athletic bigs. Throw in freshman post anchor Przemek Karnowski, and the Zags have four big men averaging nine or more points. While this frontcourt foursome has managed to outshine the heralded backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell on the offensive end, what’s been most impressive about Gonzaga’s start is its defense. Mark Few’s teams have steadily improved at that end of the floor over the past few years, and it could be the key that finally unlocks their door to the Final Four.
- Ohio – Those of us who were captivated by the Bobcats’ Sweet Sixteen run in March were certain they had the talent to impress again this year. But after losing head coach John Groce to Illinois, we were less sure they had the leadership and stability to fulfill their potential. Enter Jim Christian, who has returned to the MAC (where he plied his trade with Kent State for six years) after a layover at TCU. Christian has guided the team to a 6-0 start, including wins over Richmond and St. Bonaventure. All six games have been at home, so no one is punching their return ticket to the Sweet Sixteen just yet. But the Bobcats have assuaged any fears that the change at the top might doom their otherwise promising season.
- Wichita State – The Shockers have lived up to their nickname so far this season. After graduating their top five scorers, you could have forgiven them for a bumpy start to the season as they tried to integrate transfers, redshirts, and freshmen into a cohesive unit. But Gregg Marshall is not one of the hottest coaches in the game for nothing. The Shockers have not wasted any time on awkward early season pleasantries. Instead, they’ve darted out to a 7-0 start, posting quality wins over VCU on the road, DePaul and Iowa on a neutral floor, and Tulsa at home. Juco transfer Cleanthony Early (a certain candidate for the NCAA All-Name team) has been a revelation, leading the team with 13.9 points per game. His pairing with senior forward Carl Hall, the team’s only returning starter, has given the Shockers a formidable frontcourt. Meanwhile, newcomers Malcolm Armistead (Oregon transfer) and Ron Baker (redshirt freshman) have steadied the backcourt.
- Bucknell – Lehigh was not about to catch anyone by surprise this year, returning the bulk of a rotation that was last seen shocking the world with an NCAA Tournament win over Duke. But it’s their Patriot League nemesis who has perhaps been more impressive this year. The Bison — themselves no strangers to NCAA Tournament success (advancing to the Round of 32 in 2005 and 2006) — kicked off the season with a bang. Two, actually. They first went to West Lafayette, Indiana, and knocked off Purdue before returning home to swat George Mason away. You all know about C.J. McCollum, but let me introduce you to his long-running nemesis, Bucknell center Mike Muscala. The two have been waging an epic four-year war, trading Player of the Year honors, regular season championships, and NCAA Tournament bids, back and forth, reducing the rest of the league to mere bystanders. Muscala is averaging a double-double thus far this season and is coming off his best performance of the year, in which he scored 18 points and added 16 rebounds, seven assists, and three blocks against Niagara.
Looking Back: Early Disappointments
- Memphis – The Tigers were last seen disappointing us in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a lackluster and disoriented performance against St. Louis. So I suppose it’s fitting that they deliver more of the same in the early going this season. With a preseason top 20 ranking, they were expected to do a bit of damage in the (admittedly loaded) Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Instead, the Tigers dropped their first two games to VCU and Minnesota before recovering to post a modest 52-47 win over Northern Iowa. It took Josh Pastner some time to get last year’s squad going, and this year may prove no different. But you could forgive the Memphis faithful for their worn-out patience, given the talent that Pastner has to work with. (Side note: What’s with the “4” in Battle 4 Atlantis? Is there some pun that I’m missing? Are the tournament sponsors paying for signage by the letter? Is this just the creeping of text message style spelling into everyday life, much to the chagrin of pedants like this columnist?)
- St. Louis — It’s tough to say that St. Louis’ early season form has been a disappointment per se. No one expected that they’d have an easy time adjusting to life without Rick Majerus, the legendary and beloved coach who appears to have hung up his coaching whistle for good. And things only got worse when starting point guard Kwamain Mitchell went down with a fractured in October. But this was a team that was came close to crashing the Top 25 in preseason polls (and even made it up to #11 in Blue Ribbon), so Billikens fans have to be a bit disappointed by the middling 3-3 start, no matter how understandable it is. The good news, of course, is there is plenty of time to right the ship. The return of Mitchell, who is expected back by the time A-10 play starts, and a few more weeks of quality bonding with Majerus’ replacement, Jim Crews, will no doubt help.
- Drexel — For the second year in a row, much has been expected of Drexel, and little has been delivered in the season’s early going. Last year, the Dragons started the season 2-4, dropping games to Norfolk State and Delaware. This year, they’ve repeated the feat, opening the season with overtime losses to Kent State and Illinois State, then adding defeats to St. Mary’s and Xavier. Of course, the Dragons followed last year’s lackluster start with 25 wins in their next 26 games before dropping the CAA Tournament final to VCU. So maybe it takes some time for Bruiser Flint’s kids to adjust to the switch from daylight to standard time. But it’s not without considerable cost. Recall that despite the overall strength of their season, on Selection Sunday, Drexel was on the outside looking in. This year, having blown the chance to score quality wins against teams like St. Mary’s, Xavier, and Illinois State, the Dragons may find themselves on the same side of the bubble when the clocks springs forward in March.
- Long Island — The NEC favorites have followed up a messy offseason with a messy preseason. In September, the team’s three leading scorers, including NEC POY Julian Boyd, were suspended indefinitely for their involvement in a campus brawl. Less than a month later, the suspensions were lifted, and the players reinstated. But the bad vibes followed them from off the court to on it. The Blackbirds dropped their first four games of the season, losing to Kentucky, Maryland, Morehead State, and Lafayette in the round robin spawned by the Barclays Center Classic. Granted, two of those wins are understandable, but the losses to Morehead State and Lafayette were disappointing for a team hoping to head back to the NCAA Tournament. LIU’s fast-paced offense continues to click, as it did last year, but what has hurt them especially this season is a three-point defense that went from being a relative strength to being almost the worst in the country. Morehead State and Lafayette buried the Blackbirds with nine threes (on 39.1% shooting) and eight threes (on 50% shooting), respectively. First-year coach Jack Perri must find a way to turn this around if LIU is to regain its footing.
- Mercer — No one stood to gain more from Belmont’s departure to the OVC than the Bears, who entered the year atop the Atlantic Sun preseason polls and poised to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 27 years. But after ending last year with a CIT championship win, Mercer has started this year on a down note, dropping four of their first five games against Division I competition. That includes a brutal 62-36 beatdown at the hands of Illinois-Chicago, hardly a mid-major juggernaut. Mercer will look to get untracked this coming week with a either a big upset at Florida State on Sunday or a solid mid-major win at Denver on Wednesday.
Looking Forward: Four TO26 Games to Watch
In rough order of importance …
- Saint Joseph’s at Creighton (December 1, 3 PM) – St. Joe’s looks like a genuine threat to top a crowded A-10 field this year. They sport a balanced, efficient offense with six double-digit scorers and an imposing interior defense featuring the shotblocking trio of C.J. Aiken, Ronald Roberts, and Halil Kanacevic. That trio will have its hands full with Creighton’s frontcourt of Doug McDermott and Greg Echenique. The Bluejays will be trying to get back on track after a disappointing home loss to Boise State on Wednesday spoiled their undefeated record.
- Belmont at VCU (December 1, 7 PM) – I’ll admit that I did not expect very much of the Bruins this year, after the loss of their two-headed post monster, Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth, along with guard Drew Hanlen. But a more undersized squad, led by senior guards Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark, has impressed this year, posting a big win over Stanford on the road. They’ll have a tough test against VCU, which will play its fifth NCAA Tournament team in its first eight games.
- Middle Tennessee State at Akron (December 2, 2 PM) — These two teams were regular season conference champions last year, only to see their NCAA Tournament hopes evaporate in conference tourney play. But they both have a chance at redemption this year. MTSU has looked like the team to beat in the Sun Belt Conference, led by They had to Akron to take on Zeke Marshall and the Zips, who will likely be nipping at Ohio’s heels all season long in the MAC.
- Ohio at Memphis (December 5, 7 PM) – This is a lip-smacking matchup that should interest even the casual fan. Both teams have weaknesses that plays into their opponent’s strengths. Joe Jackson and his backcourt mates will have to take better care of the ball than they have to survive Ohio’s pressure defense, and the Tigers will need to fix their lousy three-point defense if they want to stop the Bobcats, who are shooting over 39 percent from the arc. The Bobcats, meanwhile, will be heavily outgunned on the glass and may struggle to contain Memphis’ size and strength. The feline that fixes its flaws will claw its way to victory.