The college basketball season is a few days away from starting. On Friday a full slate of games will begin, with ESPN‘s marathon of hoops kicking off shortly after, all of which will start the season off with a bang. It will also be buried under the wasteland that is football. Not that there’s anything wrong with men literally ruining their bodies for our entertainment, yet I do wish we would pay a little more attention in the realm of shooty hoops when the season starts. Every game, especially if your program is not an annual world-beater, means something at the end of the day. I mean, this isn’t Major League Baseball or anything.
Oh Yes, It’s Back…
With the season quickly approaching there are going to be many bandwagon supporters of the sport. I wrestle with which one is worst: ambassadors of the sport who turn a blind eye to anything possibly wrong with it, or those who ignore it for 10-ish months of the year, then pretend they like it when the season starts, disappear a week later, finally culminating with their “undying love” of the sport showing again come March. There should be some sort of survey one must take which rates your college basketball love.
Example: Do you love crowds?
If you answered “A”, then you are a true college basketball fan. You are also admitting you like a sport as much for the atmosphere as you do the quality of the play on the court — as the latter isn’t nearly the same quality as the NBA’s, but accepting it never will be only makes one enjoy the sport. If you answered “No”, well, you are probably a communist. Anyone who answered “Lobsters” is certainly reading the right column. Honestly, A Column of Enchantment is your go to source for lobster news, opinion, and insight.
That’s right, it’s in all caps today because we ARE JUST THAT EXCITED ABOUT THE START OF THE REGULAR SEASON.
In a few short hours, games will tip off around the nation (well, actually, Eastern Washington and Texas Southern are playing in Cheney, Washington, right now, for some strange reason) and the long and winding road from practice to pinnacle begins. To prepare for a season that on paper appears as wide open as it’s been in several years, the RTC Podcast is here to walk you through things. As always, Shane Connolly (@sconnolly114) hosts, and the guys spend this Season Preview Edition focusing on takeaways from each of our conference preview podblasts (located here), talking Top 25 teams, justifying Preseason All-America selections, and giving their Final Four picks (which are surprisingly similar this year).
Throughout the preseason, the Pac-12 microsite will be rolling out these featured breakdowns of each of the 12 league schools. Today’s release is the Washington Huskies.
Strengths: Overall, the Huskies have a solid group of guys. They won’t be as explosive as last year, but a report from the Seattle Times has noted that this year’s team has better chemistry. That probably is due to the presence of Abdul Gaddy, who has really developed into a solid floor general and knows how to find his teammates while taking care of the basketball — his 2.43 assist-to-turnover ratio was second in the Pac-12 last year. One such teammate who will be a benefactor of Gaddy’s decision-making is C.J. Wilcox, who is one of the best pure shooters in the country. Now a junior, Wilcox shot 40 percent from downtown last season, good for ninth in the conference. He will be joined on the wing by Scott Suggs, another good shooter who is returning from a broken foot that forced him to redshirt last year. The Huskies also have one of the most physically imposing returning big men in the Pac-12, as seven-footer Aziz N’Diaye will patrol the paint for head coach Lorenzo Romar, who will transition this year’s team to a high-post offense. That’s a good move for the 2012-13 Huskies, as they are more suited to play in a more structured half-court set than the typical motion offense they ran in previous years. It also doesn’t hurt that the Huskies play in Alaska Airlines Arena, which gives the Huskies a huge home court advantage; in fact, the Huskies have won more games at Hec-Ed than any other NCAA team has won at a single facility.
Wilcox Has No Problem Knocking Down Jumpers With Defenders On Him, But It’s Even Easier When No One Is Within A Five Foot Radius (credit: Dean Rutz)
Weaknesses: Washington loses a ton of firepower in Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross, both of whom left early to become NBA first round draft picks. The loss of the duo is probably as good of a reason as any to move away from a motion look, because these were the two guys who really made the Huskies go. However, the Huskies lost more than just firepower with these guys; they also lost a lot of the patented “U-Dub swag” that has been a feature of Romar-coached teams in recent memory. This is where the loss of Darnell Gant also comes into play, as he probably played to the Hec-Ed crowd as well as anybody on the Huskies. With the power forward spot up for grabs, in addition to losing three of the four guys who averaged five rebounds a game or more from last year, defensive rebounding could turn into an issue for this team; as it was, the Huskies finished eighth in the Pac-12 last year in defensive rebounding percentage.
Throughout the preseason, the ACC microsite will release a preview for each of the 12 teams. Today’s victim: the North Carolina Tar Heels.
UNC certainly didn’t end the season like they expected, but the unfortunate timing of injuries to key players was mostly to blame. After Bob Cousy Award winning point guard Kendall Marshall went out with a fractured wrist against Creighton in the Sweet Sixteen, the Tar Heels struggled to recapture the offensive flow that led them to a 27-4 record and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Elite Eight loss to Kansas goes to show that you shouldn’t judge an entire season by that team’s postseason finish, due to the unpredictable nature of a single elimination tournament.
Roy Must Reload Without the Magician Marshall Leading His Attack (News Observer/Robert Willitt)
The more costly losses in Chapel Hill occurred over the summer, as sophomores Marshall and Harrison Barnes, junior John Henson and senior Tyler Zeller moved on to the NBA. The Tar Heels lost four year-long starters who accounted for 57.5% of minutes played, 66% of points scored, 65% of field goals attempted, 69% of field goals made, 70% of free throws attempted and 73% of free throws made. While Roy Williams and staff have an extremely talented roster returning, there are a number of question marks that will need to be answered this season.
Throughout the preseason, the ACC microsite will release a preview for each of the 12 teams. Today’s victim: the NC State Wolfpack.
Newton’s first law of motion states that an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. To say that Mark Gottfried’s arrival as the NC State head basketball coach was enough to disrupt the forces behind the program’s motion is an understatement. From the time his tenure began, the attitude and aura surrounding the Wolfpack did a complete 180-degree turn. Gone was the subdued and listless Herb Sendek era, where the team flirted with success but could never conjure up the fire needed to overtake their blue blood neighbors. Also gone were the Sidney Lowe years, where excitement and potential reigned over actual results on the court.
Gottfried and his staff converted that potential into sheer kinetic energy by the end of the 2012 season. It might not have been an immediate shift, as NC State finished just above .500 in conference play and ended the regular season with 22 wins and 11 losses. They were one of the last teams selected to participate in the NCAA Tournament, celebrating like they’d never tasted success before in one of the greatest images in college basketball last year.
Just making the Tournament wasn’t enough for these newfound media darlings. They went on one of the more improbable runs in the postseason, toppling 6-seed San Diego State, 3-seed Georgetown and nearly taking out eventual national runner-up Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. The momentum generated by that three-game run has carried over into this year, with the ACC coaches and media voting NC State as the favorite to win the league. Gottfried’s second Wolfpack team blends talented veterans led by Lorenzo Brown, CJ Leslie and Richard Howell with heralded freshmen Rodney Purvis and TJ Warren.
After starting the year at #14 in Big East preseason coaches poll, the USF Bulls went an astounding 12-6 in conference last year and earned a berth in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, the school’s first in 20 years. The Bulls went on to defeat Cal in one of the First Four games and Temple in the Round of 64 before losing to the upstart Ohio Bobcats in the next round, but overall, last season was a year of almost unprecedented success for Bulls basketball. The school loses a few key players this year, but they’re getting much more respect this preseason with a #8 spot in the 2012-13 preseason coaches poll.
2011-12 Record: 22-14, 12-6
2011-12 Postseason: NCAA Tournament (Third Round)
How will Stan Heath’s young Bulls squad respond to increased expectations in 2012-13?
The Bulls should be able to compile a number of wins before entering Big East play as their non-conference schedule is not the most daunting. USF opens with rival and future Big East foe UCF at home on November 10, before returning the favor with a road game in Orlando right before conference play opens in a rare non-conference home-and-home series. USF also takes on Georgia and George Mason at home and Oklahoma State on the road. In conference play, USF has home-and-home series with Villanova, Louisville, Marquette, and Connecticut.
USF brings in a lot of new yet experienced faces to plug in some holes this season. Senior forward Kore White should see immediate playing time in the frontcourt. The 6’8″, 241 lb. White transfers in from Florida Atlantic where he averaged 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in just over 23 minutes per game last season. Guard Martino Brock is also eligible to play after sitting out a year following his transfer from South Alabama, where he scored 14.2 points per game two seasons ago. Sophomore Musa Abdul-Aleem comes in from Georgia Perimeter College as a junior college transfer. Both Brock and Abdul-Aleem are big (6’5″) and physical guards, which should allow them to fit in well in the rugged Big East conference. Both are expected to see a lot of playing time due to their defensive contributions.
Welcome to next year. After six roiling months of will-he/won’t-he interspersed with typical summer drama and another session of non-apocalyptic conference realignment, it’s time to get back to basketball. In a little over eleven days from now, official practices will commence around the country with Midnight Madness. Three weeks after that, the first real games will tip off in Queens, Starkville and Tucson as the 2kSports Coaches vs. Cancer Classic gets under way. Basketball season is just around the corner, and starting today, we’ll be unveiling our 2011-12 Season Preview with comprehensive breakdowns of each of the 31 auto-bid Division I leagues and a number of other features. We’re also proud to announced that our first RTC Microsite, featuring the venerable and historic Atlantic Coast Conference, will officially roll out a little later this morning. The calendar may only say it’s a few days into October, but as far as we here at RTC are concerned, the season starts today.
Fifteen Big East presidents met in Washington, DC, on Sunday to discuss the future of that league in the aftermath of Syracuse and Pittsburgh’s sudden departure a couple short weeks ago. According to this Andy Katz report, the league brass unanimously authorized commissioner John Marinotti to “aggressively pursue discussions” with targeted schools that the league hopes to add to its lineup. Several of the schools being mentioned as possibilities include Army, Navy, Temple, Central Florida, Air Force and SMU, with two of the service academies rumored as the top targets for membership as football-only institutions. Connecticut’s future conference status is the biggest wild card right now, as its president Susan Herbst re-affirmed the school’s commitment to the league after the meeting, but it is widely regarded that the Huskies would quickly take an ACC spot if offered one. In other words, not much has truly changed.
One Big East team that is fighting for its legitimacy to remain a major college program in both basketball and football is Louisville. Despite a $68M sports budget that would rate second only to Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12 and the most profitable basketball program in America, the Cards are worried about being left out of the superconference picture if the Big East continues its degradation and the Big 12 eventually falls apart. To put its athletic program in perspective, Eric Crawford at the Courier-Journalcreated three interesting tables showing the relative specs of the Big East, Big 12 and SEC (budgets, enrollments, expenditures, etc.). He even adds an academic component (research and development) and each school’s Sears Cup placement from the 2010-11 academic year. It’s worth a look.
This is a somewhat dated story, but we hadn’t gotten around to mentioning it yet. Last week Gary Parrish wrote about how two of Bruce Pearl‘s former assistants’ lives have been turned upside down in the intervening months since the whole house of cards came down at Tennessee. We found the tone of the article to be somewhat sympathetic — perhaps too sympathetic — to the plight that the assistants now find themselves in, coaching at Northwest Florida State for salaries far below what they were making in Knoxville. He makes the case that Steve Forbes and Jason Shay were in no-win situations where they faced punishment one way or another — either by ratting out their boss to the NCAA, or by failing to be forthright and going down with the ship as a collective. Apparently a number of people took issue with Parrish’s stance, as he addressed it again in his Five For the Weekend column on Friday. We’re of a similar mind with his critics — just because the assistants found themselves in a tough spot didn’t mean that both choices were equally meritorious, and Bruce Pearl’s own career trajectory should have taught them that. He dropped dime on Illinois twenty years ago, and yet through his subsequent hard work and on-court success, he was able to become one of the highest-paid coaches in America despite for a long time suffering a reputation as a snitch. Remember the tried-and-true lesson — the cover-up is always, always, always worse than the actual crime.
Speaking of recruiting violations, this report by Pete Thamel at the NYT takes a look at one of the areas of college basketball recruiting that knowledgeable observers suggest is among the most abused: unofficial visits. According to NCAA rules, an unofficial visit is one where a recruit visits a campus but pays his own way for all expenses related to travel, food, and lodging. Using a Lane Kiffin allegation of a booster paying for a recruit’s unofficial visit at Tennessee as an example, the report suggests that there is little to no oversight or scrutiny focusing on how high school students are in fact paying for these visits. Over half of this year’s top 100 seniors have already committed to schools without taking their official visits, so it’s clear that these players are getting to those campuses somehow. Interesting piece.
So we figure we’ll be done with these conference primers by Christmas 2008 Thanksgiving, which is about the time most people start keeping an eye on college hoops anyway. In the meantime, we thought we’d take a moment to recap the seventeen single bid conferences we’ve already reviewed. Keep in mind, our definition of a single bid league is a conference that does not regularly compete for multiple NCAA bids (even if they occasionally get multiple bids).
Some brief Single Bid Conference superlatives while we’re at this point:
Best Team. Davidson (#9 Seed NCAA)– this team has a shot at the Sweet 16 this year
Possible Spoiler. Louisiana-Monroe (Sun Belt) – everyone loves WKU in the Sun Belt, but ULM has an excellent team returning
Low Major All-Americans.
Stephen Curry (Davidson) – POY
Bo McCalebb (New Orleans)
Kyle Hines (UNC-Greensboro)
Jason Thompson (Rider)
Alex Harris (UCSB)
Hon. Mention – Courtney Pigram (ETSU), Arizona Reid (High Point), Courtney Lee (W. Kentucky), Tim Pollitz (Miami (OH))
Conference We Wish Were on TV More Often. America East. We dunno why, other than we’ve enjoyed watching teams like Albany, Vermont and BU over the past few years. Seems like a fun conference.
Conference We Wish Would Re-Organize (or Implode).Sun Belt. Despite a long and proud history, there are simply too many teams (13) located in too many places (from Denver to Miami). This conference has lost its bearings.
Conference Champ You Can Count on to Cover the Spread in NCAA Tourney 08 – Big West. Although Ivy league champs tend to stay close, Las Vegas knows that, so we like the Big West instead, where teams not named Long Beach St. have lost by an average of only 7 pts during the 2000s.
Conference Champ You Can Count on to NOT Cover the Spread in NCAA Tourney 08 – Summit. In its last nine first round games, the Summit champ has lost by an average of 22 pts.
And here’s how our Consensus Conference Picks are shaping up (RTC choice in red):
Since last time, we added the CBS Sportsline picks as well as the conference media days selections for each league. We had three more leagues came on with a full consensus (Patriot – Holy Cross; Sun Belt – W. Kentucky; Southern – Davidson) to join the OVC (Austin Peay), while the Big Sky (Montana) was only one vote short. The Big West (UCSB) and MAC (Kent St.) were solidly in one team’s corner, while the Summit (IUPUI) and Ivy (Cornell) weren’t far behind. We’re still not buying that Ivy selection of Cornell, though.
WYN2K. We went back and forth on where to rank the MAC because conveniently pigeonholing this league into low- or mid-major status is very difficult to do. Historically, the league hasn’t been more than a one-bid league (since 1985 the MAC has received two NCAA bids only five times), but it has consistently done well with the teams that it puts into March Madness, ranking among the top five conferences in terms of exceeding its expected number of NCAA wins (aka overachieving). Using historical measures of success by seed, the MAC (as an average #12.0 seed) should have won only 12.04 NCAA Tournament games over the last 23 years – instead it has won fifteen. So given this dichotomy in its character, we started looking at recent history to gain a deeper understanding of where the MAC should fall on the ladder. We’re probably going to upset the MAC folks out there, but ultimately we were swayed by the fact that the league has been a one-bid league with no first round wins (losing by an average of 8.8 pts) over the last four seasons (despite having a winning record of 192-186 against OOC opponents the last three years). That was enough to convince us to keep the MAC (for now) at the top of the low majors. But it was a very close call.
Predicted Champion. Kent St. (#12 seed NCAA). The Golden Flashes are our choice to win the MAC this year (again, shamelessly unoriginal). But what’s not to like with this team? They return all five starters from a team that went 12-4 in conference last year, and a program under the tutelage of Jim Christian who has never had an under-20 win season at the school (KSU has had nine straight 20 win seasons). No one player stands out offensively on this defensive-minded club (#22 nationally in defensive efficiency last year), but 6’7 forward Haminn Quaintance is the man shoring up the team D from the inside (#15 in stl% and #33 in blk% nationally). Kent St. has a difficult, but not insane (see: Miami (OH) for that), nonconference schedule, featuring games against mid-majors Xavier, St. Louis and George Mason at home, while going to Chapel Hill in early January to play UNC.
Others Considered. We like Western Michigan to win the West Division, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we think they’re the second-best team in the conference. Like Kent St., the Broncos also return all five starters, but the 2007 version of WMU simply (16-16) wasn’t as good as Kent St. (21-11). Their ultimate destiny may depend on the offseason development of the most excellently-named guard David Kool, last year’s MAC FrOY, a player who seems to do a little bit of everything. Last year’s miraculous champion Miami (OH) was also considered simply because they have Charlie Coles still at the helm and you know you’re going to get a hardnosed defensive team (#28 nationally in eFG% defense; MU didn’t allow a single opponent to score 70 pts last seaon) that tests itself with an extremely tough nonconference schedule every year – this year’s includes five NCAA teams, one NIT team + Cincinnati on the road. Akron getting left out of both the NCAA and the NIT last year despite 26 wins has to still sting coach Keith Dambrot. But if he’s to become vindicated with a MAC championship this year, he’ll have to do so without conference POY (and former Lebron HS teammates) Romeo Travis and team leader PG Dru Joyce. Can the Zips find point guard play to support another run? They do return five of the top 500 most efficient offensive players in the country (contributing to a #12 raw offensive efficiency), so there is a fair chance of another great season. Another team that is probably still a year away from competing for the MAC title but is worth watching is Central Michigan. CMU went from 4-24 in 2006 to 13-18 in 2007, and the pieces are beginning to align for former UCLA assistant coach and current head man Ernie Ziegler. He returns four starters including Giordan Watson, the leading returning scorer (18.8 ppg) in the MAC this season. Last year’s league regular season champ, Toledo, lost its top three scorers and is expected to drop off somewhat despite returning the league’s DPOY Kashif Payne.
Games to Watch. The MAC has a fair number of televised games this year, so you can actually watch some of these, as opposed to watching for them. Keep in mind the unbalanced sixteen-game schedule.
Kent St. @ Miami (OH) (01.17.08) & Miami (OH) @ Kent St. (03.04.08)
Central Michigan @ Western Michigan (01.22.08) ESPNU & Western Michigan @ Central Michigan (03.04.08)
ESPNU Bracketbusters (02.23.08)
MAC Championship Game (03.15.08) ESPN2
RPI Booster Games. Like the Big West, the MAC doesn’t play a lot of BCS teams, largely because they want home-and-homes and the higher profile schools aren’t willing to risk a loss when they get a Southland or Sun Belt team to take the one-game lump payment along with their whipping. Last year the league was 4-25 (.138) against BCS teams, and there are 21 such games on the schedule this year (along with quite a few mid-major games). Oh, and who does Ohio U. know at ESPN – they’re scheduled to be on the family of networks at least nine times this year!
New Mexico St. @ Ohio (11.09.07) ESPN FC
Western Michigan @ Oregon (11.10.07) ESPN FC
Vanderbilt @ Toledo (11.13.07)
Davidson @ Western Michigan (11.21.07)
Central Michigan @ Minnesota (11.24.07) ESPN 360
Eastern Michigan @ Notre Dame (12.01.07)
Miami (OH) @ Louisville (12.01.07) ESPN FC
Ohio @ Kansas (12.15.07) ESPN2
Western Michigan @ S. Illinois (12.18.07)
Kent St. @ UNC (01.02.08) ESPN
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. There’s always a reasonable shot for the MAC to get multiple bids, but we wouldn’t call those odds good this year. Looking at what happened to Akron last year suggests that the only team that would have a shot at an at-large would be Miami (OH) if they had a great record and lost in the conference tournament.
Neat-o Stat. There are three new and somewhat accomplished coaches coming into the MAC this season – Ricardo Patton (Northern Illinois), formerly of Colorado where he took the Buffs to 2 NCAAs and 4 NITs in eleven seasons; Louis Orr (Bowling Green), formerly of Seton Hall where he took the Pirates to 2 NCAAs and 1 NIT in five seasons; and Billy Taylor (Ball St.), formerly of Lehigh who is taking over from the troubled tenure of Ronny Thompson there.
64/65-Team Era. As we alluded to above, the MAC can make a reasonable case for inclusion into the mid-major category (we define a mid-major conference as one that consistently competes for and receives at-large NCAA bids, minus the BCS conferences). Despite overachieving when MAC teams make the NCAA Tourney with four teams making the Sweet 16 or better (Kent St. in 2002), it still only has had five years of multiple bids (two each time – 1985, 1986, 1995, 1998, 1999) in this era. And as you can see, none have occurred during the 2000s. For now, let’s enjoy the ending of last year’s MAC Championship game. Bedlam.
Final Thought. The conference is very balanced, as five different programs have tasted the NCAA over the last five years, and only twice has a school had the good fortune to go B2B in winning the conference crown (Ball St. – 1989 & 1990; Kent St. – 2001 & 2002). So it should be no surprise if someone besides Miami (OH) steps up and takes the title this year. Befitting a conference that has quality depth, we see no fewer than six teams that could make a legitimate run at the conference championship, and a couple more who could easily act the role of spoilers. As always, the MAC plays quality basketball and is worth catching when you get a chance.
WYN2K. As we continue our ascent up the conference ladder, we once again come to a league where the top clearly consists of mid-major quality programs, but the bottom of the conference weighs it down as a whole and keeps it from becoming a consistent multiple bid performer. As might be expected for a middling league, the Big West has split its OOC games over the past three seasons (142-155, .478), winning the games against the lower leagues and losing to those above (1-13 last year vs. BCS teams). So what we see again this year is a handful of teams near the top that could easily compete in the WAC or Horizon, and an equal number that might be better suited for the OVC or Atlantic Sun (geographical considerations notwithstanding). Yet due to its schizophrenic nature (representative of its Californian makeup, perhaps?), the Big West has only once in the last fourteen years received two bids (2005), and that was solely because upstart Utah St. defeated unbeaten juggernaut Pacific in the conference finals that year.
Predicted Champion. UC Santa Barbara (#13 seed NCAA)is our choice to represent the Big West this year (turns out we’re not very original). Besides being located in one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes the lower 48 has to offer, the Gauchos return four starters from a second-place club including likely POY guard Alex Harris (21.1 ppg, .458 3fg%) and all-conference forward Chris Devine (14.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg).These two, along with a sophomore backcourt (Justin Joyner and James Powell)that made the all-freshman team last year, hold down a formidable defense that has finished second in the league for six consecutive years. Throw in transfer center Nedim Pajevic from Weber St. and UCSB has all the pieces to win its first conference title in six years. The way we see it, the only hurdle against this team’s success are the tasty waves and a cool buzz down on the campus beach (h/t Jeff Spicoli).
Others Considered. Should UCSB stumble just a bit, we like Cal Poly as next in line to pick up the pieces. Despite losing all-conference wing Derek Stockalper, the Mustangs return sufficient talent to build off of their season-ending 10-2 run (including the conference title game). Three other starters return, including all-conference guard Dawin Whiten and inside presence Titus Shelton (#96 nationally in blk%). The other team we like a lot in this league is Cal St. Fullerton, another second-place team from last season that returns three starters, but must deal with the loss of Bobby Brown, the school’s all-time leading scorer. The Titans are most excited about incoming transfer guard Josh Akognon, a lights-out shooter who led Washington St. in scoring during Dick Bennett’s last season there in 2006. As a sophomore, Akognon dropped 25 on UCLA’s vaunted defense in a half, so expectations are obviously high. Pacific had a rough year last season after a run of three straight NCAA Tourney appearances (49-3 in the Big West over that span), but they do return four of their top seven players and still carry a swagger that the rest of the league hasn’t quite forgotten yet. A core group of juniors led by Anthony Brown will spearhead the renaissance for head coach Bob Thomason, so they can’t be dismissed.
Games to Watch. The Big West is back to nine teams after two years at eight, so the round-robin schedule remains intact. Here are the key games to watch for:
UCSB @ Cal St. Fullerton (01.12.08) & Cal St. Fullerton @ UCSB (02.07.08)
Cal Poly @ Cal St. Fullerton (01.10.08) & Cal St. Fullerton @ Cal Poly (02.09.08)
UCSB @ Cal Poly (01.19.08) & Cal Poly @ UCSB (02.14.08)
ESPNU Bracketbusters (02.23.08)
Big West Championship Game (03.15.08) ESPN2
RPI Booster Games. The Big West doesn’t typically play a lot of games against BCS teams, and we’re not sure why that is (perhaps it has more to do with location than anything). Nevertheless, the league was 1-13 (.071) last year, with the sole victory coming from UC Irvine against South Carolina (67-52). Here are this year’s best opportunities for RPI enhancement:
Pacific @ Oregon (11.11.07) ESPN FC
UCSB @ Stanford (11.11.07)
Mississippi St. @ UC Irvine (11.22.07) ESPNU
Cal Poly @ Arizona St. (11.26.07)
UNLV @ UCSB (11.27.07)
Cal St. Fullerton @ Arizona (11.28.07)
Nevada @ Pacific (12.01.07) ESPN FC
UCSB @ UNC (12.22.07)
Cal Poly @ USC (12.22.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. Not this year. While UCSB is very good, it’s not so good that it will dominate the league to the level necessary to ensure an at-large bid (as Pacific managed to do in 2005).
Neat-o Stat. Last year’s champion Long Beach St. galloped into the sunset with a conference regular season title as well as the tournament title before getting utterly shellacked 121-86 by Tennessee in last year’s first round matchup. Not only did the program lose its coach Larry Reynolds, it also lost its top nine scorers. The leading returning scorer is guard Artis Grant, who averaged all of 1.9 ppg last season in less than ten minutes of game time. Dan Monson, the architect of Gonzaga basketball in the late 1990s (of which Mark Few gets all the credit), took the job and according to one media report, he’s quite happy with the decision. He may have said that before he saw how thin his roster was going to be this year.
64/65-Team Era. The Big West’s record of 28-29 (.491) is extremely misleading due to the UNLV effect. UNLV was in this league from 1982-1996, and while there the Runnin’ Rebels ran off only 21 wins, 3 F4s and a national championship in 1990. The other seven wins during the era belong to UCSB (1990 – 1), New Mexico St. (1992 – 2; 1993 – 1), Utah St. (2001 – 1) and Pacific (2004 – 1; 2005 – 1). In more recent NCAA history, Pacific has owned the Big East in the NCAAs, beating #5 Providence 66-58 (2004), #9 Pittsburgh 79-71 (2005) and coming very close to beating #4 Boston College (Pacific lost 88-76 in 2OT) in the Eagles’ first year as a member of the ACC. Since 1994 the league has been a one-bid league with the one exception mentioned above in 2005, and its average seed has been a #12.9. If we omit Long Beach St.’s asskicking last year at the hands of Tennessee, we see that the league has performed admirably (if not successfully) in its first round games during this decade. We mentioned Pacific’s three games above, but in the Big West’s other five games its representative lost by an average of only 6.8 pts, showing that these teams play competitive basketball. For now, though, let’s reminisce about Bong Long Beach St.’s championship RTC at the Big West Championship.
Final Thought. The Big West is a league seemingly in continual flux. Every time it seems to be building a cache of solid programs at the top, one of them bolts for another conference (see: UNLV, New Mexico St., Utah St.). As a result, it can never quite get a good enough RPI rating to break through as an annual two-bid league. Regularly reaching into the lowest reaches of D1 to pick up the likes of UC Davis and UC Riverside just to have a full complement of teams only worsens the problem. Who will be next to go if a spot opens in the WCC or WAC – UCSB? Pacific? We shall see.
WYN2K. The Southern Conference has a reputation as a league on the rise, and deservedly so. After stellar regular seasons in 2006-07 from division winners Davidson and Appalachian St., including five wins over BCS schools among the league members (the highest total wins among the conferences we’ve rated thus far), the league has its sights on breaking into mid-major territory. If this is to ultimately happen, it will likely be led by Davidson, who with spectacular sophomore guard Stephen Curry, will challenge itself with several elite OOC games this season. Even though the league has been a one-bid conference throughout the 64/65 team era, last year Appalachian St. was very close to earning an at-large NCAA bid before ultimately settling for an NIT berth. And with the name cachet of Bobby Cremins bringing in exceptional recruits at College of Charleston, this league could be knocking on the door for two bids sooner rather than later.
Predicted Champion. Davidson (#9 seed NCAA) is the clear choice here. Davidson returns all five starters from the team that pushed extremely talented and athletic Maryland in the NCAA first round last year (down only four after the last tv timeout), including the aforementioned Curry, who had sick numbers for a freshman guard (22 ppg, 5 rpg, 3 apg, 2 spg, .408 3fg%, .855 ft%) including a run of 26.1 ppg the last ten games. But this is no one-man show. Aside from excellent point guard Jason Richards (#2 nationally in total assists), post men Thomas Sander and Boris Meno also both had outstanding seasons manning the inside, clearing boards and playing tough defense. Coach Bob McKillop also adds two significant recruits – Aaron Bond, who received some Burger Boy consideration last year; and his son, Brendan McKillop, who turned down ACC teams Virginia Tech and NC State to play for his pops. Knowing that Davidson needs a high RPI to offset any chance of being left at the altar should the Wildcats stumble in the conference tourney, McKillop has beefed up the OOC schedule considerably, setting up made-for-tv games with local bullies UNC and Duke in Charlotte and a trip to Raleigh to play NC State. Another road trip will include a game vs. UCLA at the Wooden Classic. All four of those teams are ranked in the Top 25.
Others Considered. We don’t expect another team to push Davidson like Appalachian St. did last season, but if Davidson gets lackadaisical or suffers a significant injury, we’d expect UNC-Greensboro to be next in line. Believe it or not, Curry didn’t win conference POY last year, and it’s not a sure thing that he will this year either. This is due to the fact that UNCG has a 6’6, 230 lb. Sir Charles clone named Kyle Hines returning in the post. Hines has scored in double figures in fifty straight games, and the last time a team went single coverage on him, he dropped 38 on their heads. Although #2 scorer Ricky Hickman is gone, UNCG returns a trio of talented sophomore wing scorers who all showed promise of bright futures. Appalachian St. is another team to watch despite losing three key seniors. The key is that two post men, Donte Minter (who should be healthy this year) and Jeremy Clayton, are returning, and in a league of little size, this could carry them a long way. One concern is the loss of heady PG DJ Thompson, who led the team’s uptempo attack, along with two other guards that saw significant time. Georgia Southern is another team on our radar, simply because they have an all-conference performer in the post (Louis Graham – #18 nationally in defReb%) and at the point guard position (Dwayne Foreman – #32 nationally in asstRate). And although College of Charleston lost three starters and a transfer from a 13-5 team, Bobby Cremins brought in the best recruiting class the league has seen in some time, and we should keep an eye on his team for that reason alone.
Games to Watch. The SoCon is going to a 20-game round robin conference schedule this season, which is the largest we’ve ever seen. Next year when the league expands to twelve teams with the addition of Samford, we suspect there will be a push by league coaches to return to a more reasonable sixteen game schedule. But for this year, it guarantees that Davidson will have to visit every road arena to test its mettle.
Davidson @ Appalachian St. (11.26.07) & Appalachian St. @ Davidson (02.27.08)
UNCG @ Appalachian St. (01.12.08) & Appalachian St. @ UNCG (02.16.08)
Southern Conference Championship Game (03.10.08) ESPN2
RPI Booster Games. We alluded to it above, but the SoCon went 5-38 (.118) against BCS teams last year (Appalachian St. – 2; Davidson – 1; Furman – 1; Wofford – 1). The number will be reduced this year, thanks to the additional conference games, but we expect a similar showing.
UNCG @ Georgia Tech (11.09.07)
Western Carolina @ Cincinnati (11.10.07)
Davidson vs. UNC (Charlotte) (11.14.07) ESPN
College of Charleston @ Arkansas (11.15.07) ESPNU
Chattanooga @ S. Illinois (11.22.07) ESPNU
Wichita St. @ Appalachian St. (11.28.07)
Davidson vs. Duke (Charlotte) (12.01.07) ESPNU
Tennessee @ Chattanooga (12.04.07) ESPNU
Davidson @ UCLA (12.08.07)
Georgia Southern @ Florida (12.15.07)
Western Carolina @ Illinois (12.17.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. This one is interesting, because if Davidson performs well against the ACC trio + UCLA, has a great SoCon record (like 18-2), yet loses in the conference tourney, we believe that this will be a two-team league.
Neat-o Stat. The Citadel must be one of the most historically horrific basketball programs in the NCAA. It joined the Southern Conference in 1937, and has yet to see its first NCAA or NIT bid. Pat Conroy wrote of his losing season there in the 60s, and not much has changed since. His cousin, Ed Conroy, will begin his second season at the school with what he calls the youngest team in America – 15 freshmen (incl. redshirts), one sophomore, one junior and one senior. Good luck, Ed, you’re going to need it.
64/65-Team Era. The SoCon has been a one-bid league throughout this era, and it will probably remain so this year (unless Davidson lays an egg in the conference tourney). The conference record (3-23, .115) reflects the success of two Tennessee teams, one of which is no longer in the league. In 1992, #14 ETSU defeated #3 Arizona 87-80 in one of Lute Olson’s earlier tankjobs, and in 1997, #14 UT-Chattanooga went to the Sweet 16 by defeating #3 Georgia (the year prior to Tubby Smith winning the NCAA title at Kentucky) 73-70, and #6 Illinois 75-63. Since then the conference (as an average #13.6 seed) has lost ten straight first round games by an average of 13.0 pts – not too encouraging. Still, the last four years show improvement, as the league representative has only lost by an average of 9.8 pts. Below is a nice clip of Curry dropping three of his thirty against Maryland.
Final Thought. This league is all about Davidson this year. The MSM will remember the Wildcats’ performance against Maryland in the NCAA Tournament and pundits like Dickie V. will be touting Curry as a PTPer all season long. Even if Davidson merely pulls one upset against the four ranked teams it plays in the pre-conference schedule, that’ll be enough to entice everyone to claim it as their Cinderella come March. But there are other good teams in this conference, so Davidson shouldn’t be reading its press clippings too closely. Several other teams could surprise much as Davidson did last year, and the level of talent entering the league is rising. It should make for a very fun SoCon season this time around.
WYN2K. Someone in PR at the Mid-Continent Conference decided that the league needed to be rebranded to effectively portray the goals and ideals of its member institutions. Hence, the Summit, which immediately reminds us of the orange and white monstrosity court at the University of Tennessee, but which league commish Tom Douple stated, represents “the top in athletics and academics.” Good luck with that, Tom. In the spirit of change, the league’s most well-known school (at least for hoops), Valparaiso, left for the Horizon League, while it added three new members – Indiana/Purdue-Fort Wayne (IPFW – shouldn’t it be IUPUFW?), North Dakota St., and South Dakota St. Of the three, only IPFW will be eligible for the league championship this season, as the Dakota schools will have to wait until 2008-09.
Predicted Champion. Oakland (#14 seed NCAA). We see four teams with championship credentials in this league, but Oakland stands out to us as the team most ready to take over the top spot from Oral Roberts. The small school from suburban Detroit (not California) returns three starters from a squad that finished second in both the regular season and tournament, and played ORU very tough in its last two meetings (Oakland won by 1 pt at home, but lost in the MCC championship game by 4 pts). Despite losing all-MCC player Vova Severovas, the Golden Grizzlies will have a superb backcourt led by Eric Kangas, an exceptional shooter who made 109 threes while shooting 43% from deep last year. Oakland is also expecting a big contribution from Rutgers transfer Dan Waterstradt, a 6’10 forward who possesses size and ability that most big men at this level do not have. We also like Oakland in close games – last year it’s ft% (76.9%) was third in the nation.
Others Considered. We’re not sure who will be the second-best team in the Summit, so we copped out and predicted a three-way tie among the next tier of teams – Oral Roberts, North Dakota St., and IUPUI. IUPUI is the media/coaches pick to win the league, with three of its top four scorers returning as well as guard George Hill, the presumptive best player in the league who had a broken foot that kept him out of action last season. Our main concern with IUPUI is whether Hill will be able to seamlessly transition into the backcourt after a productive first season from guards Austin Montgomery and Gary Patterson, the top two vote-getters for newcomer of the year. If things are rosy, IUPUI could make a run at the title. Another team we considered was North Dakota St., an independent last season who ran off twenty wins (20-8) including a win at Marquette (64-60) and near-misses vs. Texas Tech (81-85) and Kansas St. (81-83). NDSU isn’t eligible for the league title, but it returns four starters and seven of its top eight scorers. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they ended up with the league’s regular season crown? We’d be remiss if we didn’t also consider two-time defending league champion Oral Roberts as well. Scott Sutton returns a lot of players, but we can’t overlook the two he lost – Caleb Green and Ken Tutt, who combined for six all-conference selections, three POY awards (all Green), and scored over 4500 pts (!!!) for the program. If ORU’s depth, and there is plenty of that, can overcome the loss of those two stalwarts, we might just see the Golden Eagles in March again this year.
Games to Watch. The Summit will play a true round-robin of 18 games each, so there will be ample opportunity for each team to distinguish itself against the other good teams.
IUPUI @ Oral Roberts (01.17.08) & Oral Roberts @ IUPUI (02.16.08)
Oral Roberts @ Oakland (01.12.08) & Oakland @ Oral Roberts (02.07.08)
The Summit Championship Game (03.11.08) ESPN
RPI Booster Games. The Summit loves its Big 12 and Big 10 teams. Last year the league went 2-22 (.083) against BCS teams, with Oral Roberts pulling one of the biggest early-season shockers of last year (ORU 78, #3 Kansas 71) as well as defeating Seton Hall 76-74. There are some good opportunities this year, and several of them will be televised:
North Dakota St. @ Florida (11.09.07)
IUPUI @ Marquette (11.10.07) ESPN FC
UMKC @ Kansas (11.11.07) ESPN FC
Oral Roberts @ Texas A&M (11.13.07) ESPNU
Oakland @ Michigan St. (11.24.07)
Texas Tech @ Centenary (12.01.07) ESPN FC
North Dakota St. @ Minnesota (12.03.07)
Wichita St. @ UMKC (12.15.07)
Oral Roberts @ Oklahoma St. (12.20.07) ESPN2
Oregon @ Oakland (12.22.07) ESPNU
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. Still none, although we wish they’d let NDSU into the Summit League Tournament just to see what might happen if they won.
Neat-o Stat. By most objective measures, Western Illinois was one of the worst teams in America last year. Its record was 7-23 and its offensive and defensive efficiencies were among the bottom fifty. However, it was also one of the unluckiest teams in America, losing two more games than would be expected by its overall statistical profile and losing eight games by four points or less, the most such instances in the nation.
64/65-Team Era. The history of the league shows that the MCC has had a tendency for one team to dominate for a while before ceding its power to another. From 1987-1990, Southwest Missouri St. won four consecutive NCAA bids. After a few years of several teams winning the league, Valparaiso started its run of seven NCAA bids in nine years in 1996. The last two years Oral Roberts has been winning the bids, with a great shot at a third straight this season. Over the 23-year era, the league has a solid low-major record of 8-23 (.258) in the NCAA Tournament, including two trips to the Sweet 16 (1986 – #14 Cleveland St.; 1998 – #13 Valparaiso). Unfortunately, in the nine years since that Bryce Drew-led run by Valpo, the league has lost its first round game (avg: #15.0 seed) by an average of 21.7 pts (excluding the 2005 PiG, where Oakland, with a 13-19 overall record, defeated Alabama A&M 79-69). Speaking of young Mr. Drew…
Note: video cannot be embedded, so double-click on the YouTube logo above to get it to play.
Final Thought. Notwithstanding the name change, the Summit appears to be a league in transition. Oral Roberts has already shown a commitment toward building a serious program by keeping Scott Sutton on board with a seven-year contract extension. Oakland and IUPUI have also shown signs of long-term progress, and a newcomer like North Dakota St. is well positioned to be competitive in the league immediately. Last year the league earned its highest computer rankings (mid-teens) of the last decade and even with the loss of Valpo, the conference should have enough talent in its top half to keep it among the best of the low majors.