The Lede. The second night of Rivalry Week continued, but frankly those games were rather boring. The juiciest matchups occur on Wednesday night when a few old, bitter rivals re-acquaint themselves with each other. We thought that this gave us a chance to explore some of the lesser-known teams who played on Tuesday and are having excellent second halves this year.
Your Watercooler Moment. Celebrating Surprise Teams in the Mid-Major World: George Mason, Princeton and Xavier. Tonight gave us a good opportunity to discuss three teams that people didn’t necessarily expect to be playing so well at this point in this season, but each continues to win games. First, how about Jim Larranaga’s George Mason Patriots? Could it be Mason Madness all over again? With a win tonight at UNC-Wilmington, 78-63, GMU won its tenth CAA game in a row and has started the whispering around Fairfax about another big-time March run for the small school in northern Virginia. Their remaining big CAA game is a week from tonight at 11-2 VCU. A little up the coast in New Jersey, the Princeton Tigers defeated their rival Penn tonight, 62-59, in overtime, the Ivy League school’s seventh win in a row and fifth in the conference. The Tigers’ key win, of course, was last Friday over expected Ivy champion Harvard, but with that win and the Penn victory, Sydney Johnson’s team is off to a 5-0 start for the second consecutive year. The caveat is that all five of their Ivy wins have come at home, but with no Cornell juggernaut to compete with, Princeton is well-positioned to make a run at the Ivy title for the first time since 2004. The last name, Xavier, may surprise you. After all, the Musketeers are always good, right? But having lost stars Jordan Crawford and Jason Love from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team and a rough non-conference slate, not many folks expected XU to once again rise to the top of the Atlantic 10. Yet here they are, sitting at 8-1 in league play and going into a hostile environment tonight in Athens, Georgia, and coming out with a big-time win over a power conference team. Tu Holloway has been outstanding, and his 18-point second half ensured that the Musketeers of two months ago who lost to every good team they played is no longer wearing the same uniform. These three teams may not get a lot of press the final month of the season, but they’re definitely worth keeping an eye on the rest of the way.
Tonight’s Quick Hits…
- Clemson as the Fourth ACC Team. The Tigers have gotten virtually no attention this season at all, but Brad Brownell has done a tremendous job in his first season in South Carolina and Clemson could be well-positioned to finish behind Duke, UNC and possibly Florida State as the fourth NCAA team from the conference. The Tigers have been outstanding at home this season, going 5-0 in conference play and appearing a different team in the friendly confines of Littlejohn Coliseum. The key has been offensive balance, as Brownell is getting between 8.0 and 13.7 PPG from six players, led by seniors Demontez Stitt and Jerai Wright (12.8).
- Kentucky at Home. The Wildcats are simply a different team than they are on the road this season, and it’s in large part due to how the Wildcats’ role players play much more comfortably in Rupp Arena. The crystal-clear case in point is DeAndre Liggins, a guard who averages 11/4/4 APG and shoots 46% at home and contributes 5/3 and shoots 26% on the road. Tonight he was arguably John Calipari’s most effective Cat, going for 19/5/3 assts/5 stls in a complete floor game where he missed only a single field goal and free throw on the evening. In SEC play, UK is 4-0 with an average margin of victory of 20.0 points, but on the road they are only 1-4 with a margin of -0.8 points. If the Cats can get just a little better production from the likes of Liggins and company, they would be a much better team.
… and Misses.
- MVC Leaders. Does anyone want to win this conference this year? After Missouri State ran out to a 9-1 record, the Bears lost two games last week; meanwhile, UNI won eight games in a row to get to 9-3 before dropping a game over the weekend to Drake and tonight against Evansville. Wichita State moved to the forefront with an 11-2 record only to get dropped by a weak Southern Illinois team tonight. With five games left, Wichita and Missouri State appear to be in the best position to win the league, and the two teams will play each other on the last day of the regular season three weeks from now.
Tweet of the Night. It was a light night on Twitter, but Wolken brings up a good point that will much discussed in the early offseason not that long from now about the NBA lockout and its (possible) impact on students leaving school early.