The Other 26: Reshuffling the Top of the DeckPosted by IRenko on January 26th, 2013
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.
It was a wild week for the TO26’s best teams, as seven of the teams ranked in our top ten — including our top five — all suffered losses. With Gonzaga, Creighton, VCU, Butler, and UNLV all going down, who has a rightful claim on the number one ranking? Does New Mexico slide all the way from 6th to 1st after their win over Colorado State?
Not quite. Yes, Gonzaga lost to Butler in a game played without Rotnei Clarke, Butler’s leading scorer. But it was in a hostile road environment, and even under those conditions, Gonzaga had a victory in hand with just a few seconds left on the clock. And on Thursday, the Zags followed up the loss with a 20-point drubbing of conference rival BYU. So Mark Few’s men will continue to hold the top spot in our rankings. But all of the action elsewhere will produce a substantial reshuffling. Without further ado, on the substantially revised Top 10, our weekly Honor Roll, and a few games to keep an eye on as the week unfolds.
The Honor Roll is our weekly fixture highlighting the teams, players, and performances that impressed us in the past week.
- Roosevelt Jones — Brad Stevens famously described Jones’ last second steal and buzzer-beater over Gonzaga as a bit of “Hinkle Magic,” but perhaps it was really just “Jones Magic.” Jones powered Butler to their other big stunner this year, leading the way against Indiana with 16 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists. His relentlessness and awkward shot form somehow seem to mesh into a potent combination in big games.
- La Salle’s Last-Second Win Over Butler — Fresh off a thrilling win over Gonzaga, secured by a last-minute steal and buzzer-beater by Roosevelt Jones, the Bulldogs headed to La Salle looking to keep their run of good form going. With under a minute left, it looked like Butler would produce yet another close win to stay undefeated in A-10 play. An Andrew Smith layup gave them a 1-point lead with eight seconds remaining. But a driving layup by LaSalle’s Ramon Galloway with three seconds left flipped the script, and Jones couldn’t replicate his magic, missing a half-court shot at the buzzer. The Explorers are perhaps the A-10’s most underhyped and underrated team. This win could prove crucial to their hopes of securing their first Tournament appearance since 1992.
- Western Illinois’ Defense — In their two games this week, the Leathernecks held North Dakota State and IPFW to less than 0.8 points per possession. Their stifling defensive efforts have vaulted them into first place in the Summit League, a half-game over North Dakota State. Senior guard Ceola Clark III, a two-time Summit League Defensive Player of the Year, and 6-8 forward Terrell Parks, averaging nearly three blocks a game, lead the way.
- Southern Mississippi’s 102-46 Rout of Marshall — In one of the biggest whoopings of the conference season so far, not only did the Golden Eagles more than double Marshall’s point total, they made almost as many field goals as Marshall attempted — 36 to 39. Marshall got off so few shots because the Southern Miss defense forced 31 turnovers, including 11 by Marshall’s leading man DeAndre Kane. Under new coach Donnie Tyndall, this has become the Golden Eagles’ defensive trademark. As a result, despite returning only starter from last year’s Tourney team, Southern Miss, now 5-0 in conference play, has emerged as Memphis’ primary contender in this year’s C-USA race.
- B.J. Bailey — With C.J. McCollum out for the season, it looked like Lehigh’s trip to Bucknell would be an anti-climactic win for the hosts en route to an easy Patriot League title. But in the absence of C.J., the Hawks turned to B.J. The junior guard erupted for a career-high 18 points on 5-of-8 shooting including 4-of-4 from three-point range. Bailey scored eight points during an early run that put the Hawks up 19-7. Late in the game, after Bucknell took the lead, Bailey scored or assisted on three straight possessions, powering an 8-1 run that put Lehigh up for good. The Hawks’ win reignites the conference race, as Lehigh now stands as the Patriot League’s lone unbeaten, while Bucknell falls a game behind. Mark February 18 on your calendar for the rematch at Lehigh.
- Darien Brothers — The Richmond star exploded for 39 points and eight rebounds last Saturday in a win over Charlotte, an effort that included 8-of-11 shooting from three-point range. But the senior guard’s clutch performance against crosstown rival VCU on Thursday may have meant even more to the Richmond faithful. Brothers capped a furious 9-3 rally in the last 25 seconds of regulation with a buzzer-beating three-point pointer to send the game to overtime. He added five points in the extra session, including a dagger three-pointer with 1:40 left that put the game out of reach.
- Travis Bader’s 47-Point Explosion — Bader, a 6-5 junior guard at Oakland, racked up 47 points on 15-of-24 three-point shooting in an 89-71 win over IUPUI on Thursday night. It’s the highest point total in Division I all year and was powered by a remarkable 11-of-18 night from beyond the arc. Bader, incidentally, played all 40 minutes of the game, a feat that has become nearly routine for him, as he’s done the same in three of his last five. He is now averaging 21.4 points on the season.
Looking Forward: What We’re Watching
Here are the games to keep an eye on over the next week.
- New Mexico at San Diego State (1/26) / New Mexico at Wyoming (1/30) — The two biggest games on this week’s MW slate feature New Mexico, the conference’s lone unbeaten team. The Lobos have pushed their way to the top on the strength of home wins over UNLV and Colorado State, but this week brings two tough road tests. Interestingly, their recent run of form owes more to their defense than offense, somewhat of a reversal from recent years (though last year’s defense was quite good). They remain vulnerable to the three-point shot, but it’s not clear that either San Diego State or Wyoming is well-positioned to exploit that weakness. We may be in for a couple of low-scoring, grind-it-out affairs, which are becoming a fairly frequent occurrence in the Mountain West.
- Temple at Butler (1/26) / Butler at St. Louis (1/31) — Butler had a roller coaster week, bouncing from their incredible last-second win over Gonzaga to their own last-minute defeat at LaSalle. It may get even more interesting this week as they take on two of the A-10’s contenders. Temple has been decidedly unimpressive over the past couple weeks, sandwiching a pair of mediocre wins over GW and Penn around a disappointing loss to St. Bonaventure at home. And St. Louis has lost two of its last three, including its own bad home loss to Rhode Island. So the Owls and Bilikens are ripe for the picking, and, perhaps even more importantly, Butler is expecting the return of Rotnei Clarke for this week’s games.
- Weber St at Montana (1/26) — The Big Sky doesn’t often make a mark in this space, but even casual observers know that when Weber State and Montana match up, it’s a must-see game. A few days ago, this looked like it would be a battle between two 9-0 teams perched high above the conference, with a gaggle of teams a full five games behind them. But Weber State suffered a five-point loss at Montana State on Thursday, leaving Montana as the conference’s lone unbeaten. Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar tend to get the press for the Grizzlies, but burly forward Mathias Ward leads the team with 15.5 points per game. For Weber State, the loss of Damian Lillard has been mitigated by the emergence of Juco transfer Davion Berry, who leads the team with 13.9 points and 3.4 assists per game.
- Iona at Loyola (MD) (1/27) / Iona at Niagara (1/31) — One might have expected that the loss of Mike Glover and Scott Machado would leave Iona with a rebuilding season, but Tim Cluess’ ability to recruit transfers and Jucos means that the Gaels don’t rebuild, they reload. With a strong lineup featuring returnees Momo Jones and Sean Armand, and transfers David Laury and Tavon Sledge, Iona is tied for second in the MAAC at 7-2. This week, they’ll have a chance to leap to the top of the standings as they travel to Loyola (also 7-2) and Niagara (conference leaders at 8-1).
- Stephen F. Austin at Northwestern State (1/26) — Stephen F. Austin may be the most interesting team that most no one has heard about. They have built a 16-1 record (7-0 in conference) on the back of a stifling defense that is ranked in the top 5 in the entire country. Their primary rival in the Southland is Oral Roberts, who sits a game back, but Northwestern State sits third and will be gunning for the Lumberjacks when they come to town today.
- George Mason at Northeastern (1/26) — Northeastern surprised us by emerging as the Colonial Athletic Association’s top team, but they are undoubtedly that after road wins at George Mason, Drexel, Towson, and Delaware. At 7-0, they now get to defend the top spot against these contenders on a favorable home floor, a task that begins today against second-place George Mason. The Huskies have a balanced offensive attack with four players in double figures, led by senior guard Joel Smith (16.7 ppg). Their defense leaves a fair amount to be desired, but they do force turnovers at a higher rate than any other team in the conference.