The Other 26: You Will Be EntertainedPosted by IRenko on January 19th, 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.
After a one-week hiatus, we are back and just in time for a veritable orgy of great college hoops matchups today. Yes, there is Louisville v. Syracuse, Florida v. Missouri, Oregon v. UCLA, and Ohio State v. Michigan State. But things get no less interesting as you move down to the mid-major level, where several compelling matchups featuring conference contenders will unfold. Before we get to the Top 10, let’s take a look at what’s on tap today:
- Gonzaga at Butler — The nation’s two Cinderella darlings will square off at the storied Hinkle Fieldhouse in a made-for-TV (yes, ESPN College Gameday will be in the house) contest. It will be the final game of Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule and, arguably, its toughest. The loss of Rotnei Clarke to a frightening neck injury will take some of the luster off of this matchup, as Butler will be playing without their leading scorer. The task will be no easier on the other end of the Court, as the Bulldogs will have to contend with a potent Gonzaga frontcourt, led by 7-footer Kelly Olynyk, who has emerged into a bona fide All-American candidate. But as we all know, being the underdog suits Brad Stevens just fine.
- Creighton at Wichita State — Doug McDermott has wowed the nation over the past week with a pair of 30-point games, and between his dominance and Creighton’s three-point shooting, the Bluejays’ offense has become quite difficult to stop. But if there’s a team in the MVC who can do it, it’s Wichita State. The Shockers have the best defense in the league, which will have the added boost of a raucous home crowd for this premier matchup. The Shockers’ strong, quick guards will challenge Creighton at the other end, and Cleanthony Early might prove a tough matchup for McDermott. Carl Hall is also back in the lineup for the Shockers, so both teams will be at full strength.
- Harvard at Memphis — With Conference USA muddling through a down year, this could be be Memphis’ toughest opponent of the 2013 calendar year. The Crimson have turned in a quality season despite the unexpected one-year withdrawals of senior leaders Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey due to an academic cheating scandal. Much of the credit for that goes to freshman point guard Siyani Chambers, who is fifth in the country in minutes per game. Tommy Amaker has put a great deal of faith in the young man, but he has rewarded him with a 31% assist rate, 50% three-point shooting average, and 88% FT shooting average. Chambers will lock horns with Joe Jackson, who has steadied himself this season to become a reliable scorer and team leader. The senior point guard has hit double-digits in points in 12 straight games, the longest mark of his college career.
- Western Illinois at North Dakota State — North Dakota State has been one of the great underreported stories of the season, rolling up a 16-3 record and supplanting South Dakota State as the Summit League’s favorite. But Western Illinois has also creeped to the top of the league standings, just a game behind NDSU at 6-1. The Leathernecks are led by an inside-out combo of big man Terrell Parks (13.9 ppg, 9.4 rbg) and do-everything senior guard Ceola Clark. Clark is an excellent defender, and he’ll need to be at his best to help stop a North Dakota State that is a well-oiled, methodical, efficient machine. Marshall Bjorkland, the Bison’s 6-8 junior, is arguably the most efficient scorer in the country. He leads the nation in effective FG percentage (72.4%) and is fourth in true shooting percentage (71.2%).
- Utah State at Denver — Louisiana Tech remains at the top of the WAC standings after holding off Idaho on Thursday night, but these two squads are just one loss behind them. So tonight’s game has a lot riding on it. Expect a low-scoring contest between two of the lowest tempo teams in the country. Royce O’Neale and Chris Udofia lead Denver’s Princeton offense, which wears down opponents with movement and relies heavily on the three-point shot. Utah State will look to Preston Medlin, who leads the team with 16.3 points per game, and center Jarred Shaw who gets lots of touches in Stew Morrill’s offense.
- College of Charleston at Davidson — Charleston will have a chance to move into a tie atop the Southern Conference South standings with a win at Davidson. They’ll be led by their backcourt combo of Andrew Lawrence and Anthony Stitt, while their hosts will rely more heavily on their frontcourt tandem of De’Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen. Davidson can fall in love with the three-point shot to their detriment. They’re better when they get the ball to the versatile Brooks and Cohen. Getting the ball in the basket won’t be easy against Charleston, which has a pretty good defense anchored in the middle by Adjehi Baru.
- Belmont v. Tennessee State — You would think that this game between the OVC’s two undefeated teams would lose its luster with the absence of Tennessee State’s star big man, Robert Covington, except for one thing — they’ve won every one of their six OVC games without him. Covington went down with a torn meniscus in a December 18 trip to Middle Tennessee State that the Tigers went on to lose by 38 points. At that point, they were 5-7 on the season but they’ve reeled off seven straight since and now sit atop the OVC East standings. But they may need more than the Ewing Effect when they travel across town to face off with Belmont. The switch from the A-Sun to the OVC hasn’t dimmed the Bruins’ ability to dominate their conference competition.
So there it is, a day-long feast for the glutton who craves mid-major hoops. We move on, now, to the updated Top 10 rankings, our weekly (starting this week) Honor Roll, and a few more games to keep an eye on as the week unfolds.
Top 10 Rankings
Welcome to the TO26 Honor Roll, which we expect to be a weekly fixture that highlights the teams, players, and performances that impressed us over the past week.
- Preston Blackman’s 40-point game — Over the past couple weeks, we’ve had thirty point games from such mid-major stars as Doug McDermott, Kelly Olynyk, and Cleanthony Early. But a 40 point game? That was accomplished just once, by Savannah State’s Preston Blackman, who scored 41 in a double overtime victory at Morgan State. On a team known more for its defense than offense, Blackman is not even the leading scorer. But on Monday night, he shot 14-of-26 from the field, including 8-of-15 from three-point range to lead the MEAC contenders to a big win.
- Valparaiso’s Comeback Win Over Detroit — On Thursday night, the Horizon League’s top two teams squared off in Detroit, and for most of the game, the matchup failed to live up to expectations. Detroit was up by 16 at the half, up by as much as 21 in the second half, and up by 11 with under three minutes to go. That’s when Valpo, which hadn’t led the entire game, staged a furious 12-0 run in the closing minutes to escape with an improbable 89-88 win. A pair of Matt Kenney threes and a turnover apiece from Detroit’s veteran backcourt mates, Jason Calliste and Ray McCallum, fueled the comeback. The finish overshadowed two outstanding individual performances. Detroit’s Nick Minnerath poured in 36 points on 12-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-7 from three-point range, while Valpo center Kevin Van Wijk scored 31 points on 13-of-15 shooting.
- Northeastern — As a conference, the CAA has been a disappointment this year. Preseason favorite Drexel has struggled, and the rest of the league has mostly muddled along. That’s left a vacuum at the top of the conference, and Northeastern has moved to fill it. The Huskies went on the road to knock off both Drexel and Towson, who had been having an unexpectedly good year. After a win over Hofstra, they now sit atop the league standings at 5-0. A win at Delaware today, and they’ll clearly establish themselves as the conference’s top dog through one-third of the season.
- Georgia Southern — By January 12th, Georgia Southern was sitting on a pretty mediocre season. They were 6-10 overall and had dropped their first three conference games, leaving them in the cellar of the Southern Conference’s South Division. But last week, they reeled off a pair of wins against the division’s two best teams, conference favorite Davidson and the College of Charleston. They did it in different ways, first with an explosive offensive effort against Davidson, and then a stifling defensive lockdown of Charleston. Whether this is a mid-season fluke or the start of a true conference run is yet to be seen. They’ll have a chance to build on their momentum against lowly Citadel today.
Looking Forward: What We’re Watching
Apart from today’s bounty, there are some good games worth keeping an eye on as the rest of the week unfolds.
- Colorado State at New Mexico (1/23) — Colorado State fell just short at San Diego State last weekend, losing in overtime. They have another shot at one of the MWC’s top dogs today when they host UNLV. But if they can’t get it done tonight, Wednesday’s matchup at The Pit will loom large for the at-large hopes
- Lehigh at Bucknell (1/23) — The loss of C.J. McCollum has surely taken the shine off of this one, but it is still the premier Patriot League matchup of the year. McCollum’s running mates, starting with Mackey McKnight, will have to carry the torch in his absence
- BYU at Gonzaga (1/24) — This year’s BYU squad does not look to be as good as last year’s, and their Tournament chances don’t look especially good at the moment. Their best win of the year is a road victory at Weber State — not the kind of thing that makes the Selection Committee sit up and pay attention. But a win at Gonzaga surely would.