The Other 26: Week FivePosted by IRenko on December 15th, 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.
The past week brought bad news for mid-major fans in that the 2013 edition of the Bracketbusters will be the last. There are diverging views on the value and appeal of the Bracketbusters, which was designed to give mid-majors a higher profile in advance of the NCAA Tournament where their presence as potential spoilers is a crowd-pleasing hallmark of March Madness. Personally, I found every year’s Bracketbuster matchups to be compelling, as some of the best mid-major teams in the country were pitted against each other just as they were rounding into peak form. But individual aesthetics aside, it’s worth asking whether the Bracketbusters event served one of its more objective purposes — to help mid-major teams bolster their at-large resumes with quality wins over non-conference opponents late in the season. Recent years’ evidence suggests that Bracketbuster games have actually helped quite a bit in this regard. In each of the last three seasons, a mid-major team that snuck into the at-large field did so in part on the strength of a late season quality win over Bracketbuster weekend. And one of those teams went on to make the Final Four.
Last year, Iona scored its second best win of the year (in RPI terms) when it knocked off Nevada. The Gaels went on to make the NCAA Tournament as a #14 seed. In 2010, Utah State also picked up its second best win of the season — one of only two RPI top 50 wins — when it defeated Wichita State. That may have been the difference-maker that got them into the NCAA Tournament field as a #12 seed. And perhaps the most famous beneficiary of the Bracketbusters concept was 2011’s VCU. The Rams notched a critical victory over Wichita State in the middle of a rough stretch during which they had lost four of five games to close the regular season. Their at-large selection defied the odds as it was, but imagine how tough a choice they would have been for the Selection Committee without the late season quality win over the Shockers. Without Bracketbusters weekend, we may never have had the privilege of watching the Rams wreak their unique brand of “havoc” on the Southwest region en route to the Final Four. So whatever else one might say about the Bracketbusters, let it not be said that it did not make a difference.
Moving on to this week’s Top 10 and more …
Top Ten Rankings
Keep an Eye On …
Here are a few TO26 teams who are flying under the radar but are worth keeping an eye on as non-conference play closes out in the next couple weeks.
- Wyoming — Last year, the Cowboys had one of the toughest defenses in college basketball, a strength that propelled them to a 14-2 start. But they finished the season just 7-10 (and 6-8 in MW conference play), largely because their offense struggled so much. After losing three senior starters, there was no particular reason to think that things would improve this year. But the Cowboys are off to a hot 10-0 start (8-0 against Division I teams), and a much improved offense is a big part of the story. Seniors Leonard Washington and Luke Martinez have, predictably, led the team in scoring, but senior Derrious Gilmore has been the most surprising performer, upping his scoring average from 3.1 to 13.1 points per game. Sophomore Larry Nance, Jr. (yes, the son of the former NBA star of the same name) has also given the team a strong inside presence, scoring 10.6 points per game while pulling down 7.4 rebounds. The Cowboys’ best victories have come recently, against Colorado and Illinois State, and they’ll have a chance to add to that resume with a game against Denver this week.
- Illinois-Chicago — Nine games into the season, and the Flames have already matched last season’s win total. Preseason polls had them finishing near the bottom of the Horizon League, but those expectations are being rapidly revised. Early season wins over Mercer and Iona gave some indication that the Flames were poised to outpace the mediocrity of the last three seasons, when they won eight, seven, and eight games. But in the past two weeks, after wins over Northwestern and Colorado State, they’ve left no doubt. How are they doing it? With a defense that is tough as nails, steady ball control, a healthy dose of three-point shooting, and the breakout season from Hayden Humes that they were hoping for.
- Albany — After winning six straight, Albany stands at 9-2 on the season. Their two losses were at Ohio State and a close three-point loss to MAAC favorite Loyola (MD). They’ve notched wins they can be proud of, knocking off Washington on the road and Duquesne and Wagner at home. Despite the offseason losses of Logan Aronhalt (transferred to Maryland) and Gerardo Suero (went pro), the Great Danes should be in the hunt for the America East championship and an NCAA Tournament bid.
Looking Back: Last Week’s Key Results
- UNLV 76, Cal 75 — If you haven’t noticed by now, Anthony Bennett is really good. The star freshman scored 25 points on 17 shots and hit a key jumper down the stretch, before Quintrell Thomas’ near-buzzer beater won the game for UNLV. The bad news is that Mike Moser suffered a dislocated elbow, which could keep him out for a month.
- New Mexico 65, Valparaiso 52 — The Lobos just keep on rolling. Behind a balanced offensive effort, in which Kendall Williams, Tony Snell, and Hugh Greenwood scored just 18 points combined, the Lobos. How’d they do it? By controlling the glass (giving up just one offensive rebound) and exploiting Valpo’s looseness with the ball (22 turnovers). The Crusaders will need much steadier play from their senior backcourt if they’re going to fend off their competitors for the Horizon League crown.
- Middle Tennessee 65, Ole Miss 62 / Belmont 64, Middle Tennessee 49 — It was a mixed bag for MTSU this week, as they notched a big over an improved Ole Miss squad on Saturday only to lose badly to Belmont on Thursday.
- Drexel 64, Princeton 57 — The Dragons outscored the Tigers by 14 points in the second half for the comeback victory on the road. Is this a turning point for Drexel, which had stumbled out to 2-6 start? They have a string of quality games over the next two weeks, against Fairfield, Davidson, and St. Joe’s, before conference play begins.
- Eastern Michigan 47, Purdue 44 — Granted, Purdue does not seem to be very good this year, but give Rob Murphy’s crew credit. A win over a Big Ten team is never something to sneeze at for a middling MAC program, from which little was expected this seasons. Their tough defense, anchored by seven-foot center Da’Shonte Riley, will keep them in games this year as pursue a MAC West title.
- Northern Iowa 82, George Mason 77 (OT) — The Panthers were considered Creighton’s biggest competition in the MVC coming into the season, but after they dropped three games in the Global Sports Classic (against Louisville, Stanford, and Memphis) while Wichita State, their status as an MVC contender seemed shaky. The Panthers righted the ship with a big overtime win on the road against George Mason, their best victory of the season.
Looking Ahead: This Week’s Games to Watch
- On Saturday, We Hunt the BCS — Several top TO26 teams will be looking to bolster their at-large resumes and build momentum heading into conference play when they lock horns with BCS squads today. The most compelling matchup is probably Memphis’ home game against Louisville, a chance for the Tigers to punctuate their four-game winning streak. In addition, Butler takes on top-ranked Indiana, Belmont visits Kansas, Creighton heads to Cal, VCU hosts Alabama, Gonzaga takes on Kansas State, and Northern Iowa hosts Iowa.
- And on Wednesday, We Hunt Each Other — Not all of this week’s best action features BCS opponents, though. On Wednesday night, several top TO26 teams will wage war against each other. D.J. Cooper and Ohio will visit Chaz Williams and UMass in what should be an entertaining, if adventurous, point guard match-up. Illinois State, which has moved near the top of this year MVC field, heads to Dayton, where they take on a Flyers squad that is quietly positioning itself for an A-10 title and NCAA Tournament run. And the MW powers will host top mid-majors, with UNLV entertaining Northern Iowa and San Diego State welcoming Belmont.