Friday, November 18, 2011

2011-2012 College Basketball Preview: The Mid Major At Large Threats

It looks to be a deep year in the BCS leagues. The Big East will be good for its usual eighth of the tournament at least and if West Virginia, Georgetown and Notre Dame all hold serve while one of the young, rebuilding St. John's or Villanova teams (or an even deeper sleeper) can break through then it could get in to double digits again (but hitting last March's magic 11 would be a real shock), the Big Ten and SEC could each get 6 or more and it's hard to see the ACC sending any less than 5 even though it's a really weak league this year after UNC, Duke and perhaps Florida State. That leaves only the Big 12, which drops off after the top 4 and the annually-weak Pac-12 as BCS leagues where at large bids may erode. More on the big boys later in the week.

That means the following seven leagues probably won't each have at large teams in this year's NCAA tournament but each of them is a major threat to have one or more. Again, major credit goes to my Sporting News preview mag, as well as the internet and my own noggin for the billions of words that follow on the top mid major leagues in the land. Specific teams I write about are bolded for convenience.

Atlantic 10
Champion - Xavier
Lock - Temple
Bubble - Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure, Richmond

13th ranked Xavier and slashing senior guard Tu Holloway (19.7 ppg, 5.4 apg) are the heavy favorites to win the league and the league's Player of the Year award, respectively. Chris Mack, now 50-17 in two years at Xavier after taking over for Sean Miller, has solidified the program as one of the top mid majors in the land and it might be the best team outside of a BCS league this season, although it's gotten off to a bit of a shaky start with closer-than-expected wins over Morgan State and Miami (Ohio) (dangerous low major teams in their own right) and the remaining nonconference games are against Georgia, at # 18 Vanderbilt, Purdue, at Butler, crosstown rival # 20 Cincinnati, Oral Roberts, Long Beach State and # 22 Gonzaga - not a single easy win in the bunch. But behind Holloway - the A-10's leading assist man and second leading scorer last season, a third team All American and arguably the best at getting to the foul line in the entire country - and backcourt mate Mark Lyons (13.6 ppg, 3.1 apg) should lead the Musketeers to their sixth consecutive regular season title. They went 24-8 (15-1) in a far stronger league last season so a perfect campaign isn't out of the question...

...if they survive February 11th's trip to Temple, the only other probable NCAA tournament team in the league. The Owls lose star big man Lavoy Allen but return four double figure scorers including the streaky Juan Fernandez (11.2 ppg, 3.9 apg), who on his day is second to only Holloway in the conference in terms of scoring ability. Leading scorer Ramone Moore (15.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.1 apg) and A-10 Most Improved Player Scootie Randall (10.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg) should ensure a second place finish and at large bid at worst. They've already secured a third place finish in the Puerto Rico Tip Off, beating Western Michigan and Wichita State and losing by just 8 to Purdue. Nonconference games against Big 5 rival Villanova, at Texas and home shots at Maryland and # 6 Duke in January give the Owls a real opportunity to secure a plum NCAA tournament seed.

The rest of the league is a jump ball. Don't expect more than 1-2 at large bids and even that might be pushing it, although Saint Louis may have helped its cause immensely with a 77-64 win over Washington over the weekend that the Billikens led by 25 at the half. They return all five starters from a team that was better than its 12-19 (6-10) record and has won at least 18 games in 3 of Rick Majerus' five years in the program. With all that experience and one of the biggest home court advantages in the conference, this looks like their time to make a real push towards the NCAA tournament. However, the "experience" may be a bit of a misnomer, as there are still only two seniors and seven sophomores on the roster. They play in the 76 Classic over Thanksgiving break and get two coveted shots at Xavier as well as Temple at home with no return trip to Philly. St. Bonaventure brings back Andrew Nicholson and it is he, not Holloway, who is the conference's leading returning scorer at 20.2 points per game last season. He led the Bonnies to a 16-15 (8-8) mark, their first winning season since 2001-2002 and he along with three other returning starters could see the team better its record and College Basketball Invitational invite from last season. They have nonconference shots at the ACC's Virginia Tech and N.C. State - the latter at home - but no home shot at Xavier in league play hurts. Richmond returns only one starter from last year's 29-8 (13-3) Sweet 16 team but Chris Mooney is somewhat surprisingly still on the bench, giving the Spiders credible hopes in this league. Mooney, 112-87 in 7 years coaching the Spiders, is a real intellectual who should get the most out of what he has and with the usual challenging Richmond OOC slate consisting of trips to Illinois, Wake Forest, city rival VCU, Bucknell and UCLA as well as home games against Iona and Old Dominion, there will be plenty of chances for resume-bolstering victories against teams that are in BCS leagues and/or should be in NCAA tournament contention but they too miss a home game against Xavier (and don't go to Temple either, so capitalizing on the OOC chances will be paramount.)

Champion - VCU
Lock - None
Bubble - Drexel, Old Dominion

For all the progress this league has made since George Mason's all-time shocker of a Final Four run in 2006 as an 11 seed to VCU replicating such a feat this past March, this season looks to be a down year for the league. The Rams themselves lose four of their top five scorers from that Cinderella team, which finished fourth in this league last season before getting to the conference tournament final, copping a probably undeserved bid to the NCAA tournament and using all the disrespect and scorn from pundits and fans alike as fuel for their magical run to Houston. Only Bradford Burgess (14.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is back but with Shaka Smart signing an eight year extension to remain the boss in Richmond, the Rams should remain at or near the top of this league. But to get back to the NCAA's, they'd do well to take a step further in the conference tournament this year, as they've already suffered shock nonconference losses to Seton Hall and Georgia Tech, both by double digits. And yet, they remain the favorites to take the league crown because of the strength of the program that Jeff Capel and Anthony Grant built over the past decade and that Smart has sustained.

Actually, the favorites to take the league crown - according to the preseason coaches poll, anyway - are Drexel, but the Dragons have gotten off to an even worse start than the Rams. Favorites to get to the Paradise Jam final according to Ken Pomeroy, they've wiped out in the Virgin Islands, losing to the MEAC's Norfolk State and then scoring just 35 points in a pathetic 14 point loss to Virginia. Always a solid top 4 program or so in this league, Bruiser Flint's boys will need to get better if they're to live up to expectations but the talent is there. Samme Givens (12.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg) is the only returning player in the conference to average a double-double and six of the top seven players from a 21-10 (11-7) team are back. But with the toughest remaining OOC game being probably Fairfield (not counting a potential BracketBuster game), the Dragons might need the auto bid at this point...the auto bid that Old Dominion won last March. The Monarchs are kind of the forgotten power in the CAA - they've never made a deep tourney run like VCU or George Mason (who is rebuilding in the wake of Jim Larranaga taking the Miami job and has already lost to both Florida International and Florida Atlantic) and they haven't been the center of some of the big victories/controversies that Drexel has (remember when the Dragons won at Syracuse and then got snubbed from the NCAA tourney anyway?) but they're always in the thick of things in this league and this year should be no different under old reliable Blaine Taylor. Defensive Player of the Year Kent Bazemore and his 2.2 steals per game are back but he's just one of six letterman returning from last year's squad, which bowed out in the NCAA tournament on a buzzer beater against eventual national runner up Butler. The fact that such an inexperienced team is still among the best teams in this league shows you its dearth of quality this season, but the Monarchs pulled off a big overtime win against South Florida before showing well in a 10 point loss against Kentucky in a tournament in Connecticut this past weekend and a December 30th visit from # 24 Missouri provides the opportunity for a big nonconference scalp.

Conference USA
Champion - Memphis
Lock - None
Bubble - Marshall, UCF, Tulsa

After a few years where the UTEPs and Houstons had their moments in the limelight, this league should officially be back to its usual "Memphis and the eleven dwarfs" status this season. The 10th ranked Tigers return pretty much everyone from last year's 25-10 (10-6) squad that won the conference tournament and came within a Derrick Williams block of taking out Arizona in a 12/5 special (that I called) in round 1 (technically round 2 now but screw the play ins.) Plus, super freshman Adonis Thomas should be the next Memphis lottery pick and will add even more pure athleticism to a group already overflowing with it. Leading scorer Will Barton (12.3 ppg), C-USA Tournament MVP Joe Jackson, All-Freshman Tarik Black (9.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and senior leader Wesley Witherspoon are the headliners but this is one of the deepest, most talented teams in the country that can make a legitimate Final Four run if it clicks. A big if, considering there are still only two seniors on the entire roster but if beauty comes before age, this Tigers team can and will go deep in the Big Dance. They've already fired a warning shot to the rest of the nation, smashing a Belmont team by 16 that Duke could only beat by 1 and they could see the Blue Devils in the Maui semifinals on Tuesday if they get by Michigan tomorrow. Add in trips to Miami (FL), Louisville and Georgetown as well as visits from Tennessee and Xavier, the Tigers should be thinking 1 or 2 seed in March.

If there's a clear # 2 in the league, it might be Marshall. The Thundering Herd return four starters from last year's 22-12 (9-7) team, including 5'10, 165 pound Damier Pitts who plays much bigger than his size, averaging 16.2 points and 4.7 assists a game last year and backcourt mate DeAndre Kane (15.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg), last season's Conference USA Freshman of the Year. They've got a couple of nice opportunities for big nonconference victories with trips to # 20 Cincinnati, # 5 Syracuse, Belmont and the annual rivalry game with West Virginia in Charleston. They also get two shots at Memphis in league play. Donnie Jones did a terrific job building up the Marshall program before jumping ship to UCF last year and taking the Knights to their first 20 win season since 2007. UCF won 21 games, but just six of them came in conference as a miraculous 14 game unbeaten nonconference run through the winter turned in to a monumental conference season collapse during spring that included an eight game losing streak at one point. This year, four starters return including Marcus Jordan (15.2 ppg, 3.3 apg), son of that Michael guy who's spending his time railroading the NBA Players Union these days. He's the leading scorer, assist man and face of the team but leading rebounder Keith Clanton (14.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg), who shot 52.9% from the floor last season (good for 3rd in C-USA) might be just as important to the team's success. He and other returning starters P.J. Gaynor and Dwight McCombs are all 6'8, so the Knights will present plenty of size and matchup problems all season. They already got crushed by Florida State and the biggest remaining nonconference game is against Old Dominion, so a repeat of last year's OOC run is probably necessary, but they too play Memphis twice. And then there's Tulsa, who has quietly established itself as a top C-USA program, making back-to-back conference semifinals and even being preseason favorites two seasons ago. The Golden Hurricane, like the league's other bubble contenders, have a host of key returning parts including senior center Steven Idlet (11.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg), All-Freshman Jordan Clarkson (11.5 ppg) and UConn transfer Scottie Haralson (10.9 ppg, 1.7 apg) who hit 82 threes last season, fifth most in school history. It suffered a couple of tough four point losses in Charleston to tournament champion Northwestern and St. Joseph's but still has games at Oklahoma State, Arizona State, Wichita State and Creighton before conference season so there are opportunities for resume-building wins. Unlike the other bubble contenders, Tulsa only plays Memphis once - but the game is in Oklahoma on Senior Night, March 3.

Champion - Detroit
Lock - None
Bubble - Butler, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Cleveland State

2005-2006. That's the last time Butler didn't win the Horizon regular season title. It came a year after a 13-15 (7-9) 04-05 campaign that might be the last time the Bulldogs finish a season under .500 overall and/or in conference play for many years and a year later, Todd Lickliter took the Iowa job after restoring the Bulldogs atop the conference. Some guy named Brad Stevens took over and the program took off even more. It's become so important, at least in this league, that I'm writing about it first even though I don't have it winning the conference title. That's because the much-maligned Ronald Nored, along with Andrew Smith and Chase Stigall are the only returning recognizable pieces from the back-to-back national runner ups. Stevens might be the best coach in the country and he took a team that returned only Matt Howard to a 26-6 (15-3) mark in 2008-2009 that set the table for the two Final Fours but the fact of the matter is that a Golden Generation just passed and there's going to be a significant rebuilding effort. Already, this Butler outfit has suffered a shock loss at Missouri Valley also-ran Evansville and got thumped on its home court by # 9 Louisville. They'll still be in the hunt for the conference title, if only by default, but they just might cede it this season.

Detroit used to be Butler. The Titans strung together nine straight winning seasons between 1995-1996 and 2004-2005 including back-to-back first round upsets of St. John's and UCLA in the 1998 and 1999 NCAA tournaments but that victory over the Bruins marks the last time the program that Dick Vitale once coached made the NCAA's. This year is the year to end the drought. Aside from Butler being as down as it will ever be, Detroit returns all five starters from last year's 17-16 (10-8) team, the first to win 10 Horizon games since 03-04. Like Creighton in the Missouri Valley (more on them in a bit), the coach's son is the star. Ray McCallum was doing a great job of reviving the program even before his son stepped on campus last year. As a freshman, Ray McCallum Jr. averaged 13.5 points a game and was third in the Horizon in assists (161) and steals (54) becoming the proud school's first ever freshman to make an all-conference team (2nd.) Joining him on that 2nd team was Eli Holman, the league's leading rebounder (9.6 rpg) and guards Chase Simon (13.5 ppg) and Chris Blake (10.9 ppg) give the team five returning double digit scorers. Couple that with McCallum's (father and son) defensive prowess and the Titans just may be able to slay Goliath and the rest of the Horizon. They only lost by 6 at Notre Dame and still have nonconference games against St. John's, at Alabama and Mississippi State so there are at-large chances as well.

Having already capitalized on its biggest at-large chance, Cleveland State can head in to its seven game road trip coming up knowing that a slip can be afforded after the 71-58 scalp at # 7 Vanderbilt. D'Aundray Brown showed in that game that he may be willing to fill Norris Cole's shoes. Cole was the Horizon Player of the Year last year, averaging a league-best 21.7 points per game while also leading the league in assists (191) and steals (80) but Brown came up with 18 points, 8 rebounds and SEVEN steals against the Commodores. Cole took the Vikings to the brink of the NCAA's, going 14-1 in 2010 and falling 76-68 to Butler in the Horizon semis. But Cole's team didn't pull off a win as good as the Vandy win, nor did it beat the Bulldogs once in three tries. Brown's team, also bolstered by the return of Trevon Harmon (13.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg), may very well do so - along with getting to the NCAA's. Last season, Wisconsin-Milwaukee had the opposite problems of Cleveland State. They were 6-8 (1-2) on New Year's Eve before catching fire in 2011, beating Butler twice en route to a 13-5 league mark and regular season crown. But they say it's next to impossible to beat a team three times and the Panthers proved that axiom correct when the Bulldogs beat them on their home floor for the automatic birth to the NCAA's. Three starters return from that team, as do a few key reserves, and the Panthers - probably the second best program in the conference over the past decade, thanks in large part to Bruce Pearl before he took off for Tennessee - are strong enough to contend again. And so far so good on the OOC front although a trip to Michigan State this week could change that and dates with in-state big brothers # 14 Wisconsin and at # 21 Marquette loom later.

Missouri Valley
Champion - Creighton
Lock - None
Bubble - Wichita State, Indiana State

One could argue that last March was the league's low point over the past decade at one point. The league produced only a 14 seed automatic bid, who was blown away by Purdue in the first round. But then it got teams to the finals of the NIT and College Basketball Invitational and if things break correctly, it could snag one or more at larges to this year's NCAA's. Creighton, the CBI finalist (losing to Oregon in a three game series best known for Oregon's court costing the Bluejays the title) is the favorite in the Valley this season, returning five of its top six scorers including the coach's son. Greg McDermott's son Doug is the Bluejays' leading returning scorer and rebounder at 14.2 points and 7.2 boards per game, good enough to help him become just the second freshman in Valley history to earn first team all-conference honors. Also back are Antoine Young, whose 5 assists a game and 2.4 assist/turnover ratio were both tops in the league (and his 13.1 ppg was second on the team) and Gregory Echenique, who shot the highest percentage from the floor (60.9%) in the league (McDermott was third at 52.5% - yeah, he's good.) Creighton hasn't won a Missouri Valley regular season title since 2008-2009 and it hasn't won an outright title since the beginning of the first (LOL) George W. Bush term but this year's outfit could change all that.

Their main challenger should be Wichita State, last season's preseason conference favorites and postseason NIT champions. The Shockers lose top scorer and first team all-conference pick J.T. Durley but return the top five scorers after him, most notably do-it-all guard Toure' Murry (9.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.4 apg), the team's leading returning scorer, rebounder and assist man. Ben Smith (6.7 ppg), the Valley's Sixth Man Award winner is also back and down low, the Shockers have a pair of seven footers in Garrett Stutz (7.2 ppg) and JUCO transfer Ehimen Orukpe, who only played sparingly last season. Speaking of JUCO, it's those ranks where Wichita State obtained perhaps its most talented player on this season's roster: 6'8, 215 pound Carl Hall, a first team JUCO All American at Northwest Florida State. The Shockers disappointed somewhat in Puetro Rico, losing tough battles to Alabama and Temple (in OT) and now cannot blow nonconference games against UNLV, Utah State, UAB and @Tulsa if they're to have at large hopes. In an interesting quirk, they host Creighton in the second game of conference season and head to Qwest Center in their penultimate conference game (their only road game in their final 4 league games.) The only other at-large threat from the league appears to be defending tournament champ Indiana State, who returns four starters including sophomore Jake Odum, who led the Valley in steals last year with 1.8 a game and was second with 4.1 assists per contest. Leading scorer Dwayne Lathan (10.9 ppg) is also back and among the reserves, Jordan Printy hit a league-best 47.7% of his threes last season. The Sycamores have a real shot to win a weak Old Spice Classic, starting with Thanksgiving's quarterfinal against Big 12 minnow Texas Tech, which would be paramount for at large chances and a big part of why they're even considered to be a preseason bubble team. There's also a trip to Vanderbilt and in conference play, the home shot at Creighton is Senior Night. A lot could be on the line that night.

Mountain West
Champion - UNLV
Lock - None
Bubble - New Mexico, San Diego State

The only question for UNLV might be Dave Rice. He replaces Lon Kruger, the man solely responsible for the revival of the Runnin' Rebel basketball program after the acrimonious end of the Jerry Tarkanian era in the early 1990s, after Kruger took on the responsibility of reviving Oklahoma's now-moribund program. Fortunately, Rice was on Tarkanian's 1990 national champion and has 11 years of assistant coaching experience at the Thomas and Mack Center under his belt. He'll have four returning starters from last year's 24-9 (11-5) team that smelled blood in the water when Brandon Davies was kicked off of BYU, beating them twice after the controversy and winning the conference tournament before a lackluster showing in round 1 of the NCAA's against Illinois. Chief among them is Chace Stanback (13.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg), the conference's second leading returning scorer, as well as Oscar Bellfield (11.2 ppg, 3.7 apg.) Also returning is Kendall Wallace, who blew out his knee before last year and may be the best pure shooter on the team, a good thing considering the team only shot 33% from 3 point range last season. With the Cougars no longer in the conference and the other contenders somewhere along the process of rebuilding, the Rebels may not have a better opportunity to seize the league than now.

Had Drew Gordon (13.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg) been eligible in November, maybe New Mexico has a different season. Instead, the Lobos went just 8-8 in Mountain West play (but 22-13 overall) after the UCLA transfer became eligible in December. However, Gordon and three other starters - including MWC Freshman of the Year Kendall Williams (11.6 ppg, 4.0 apg) who led the league in 3-point percentage (42.6) - have Steve Alford thinking this team might end up like his conference champion of two seasons ago with Darington Hobson and Dairese Gary leading the Lobos to a 30-5 overall mark. This season's outfit probably won't go 30-5 but it could win the conference title and definitely can get back to the NCAA's, although the New Mexico State loss wasn't pretty and a five point win over Pac-12 minnow Arizona State (who has already lost to Pepperdine) shows that this team has a ways to go and with the toughest remaining OOC game being at Oklahoma State, they may have to run the table and come up with a record ultimately close to Hobson and Gary's team anyway...or that of last year's San Diego State team, which had by far the best season in program history last year, going 34-3 (14-2) and winning the Mountain West regular season championship and its first ever NCAA tournament game(s) before a Sweet 16 loss to eventual national champion UConn. But now most of that team is gone. Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White are all gone and it'll be up to Chase Tapley and James Rahon to pick up the slack. The guard duo averaged a combined 15.6 points per game last season - Tapley shooting 38% beyond the arc and Rahon hitting 43.4% of his threes so it could be a perimeter orientated team. But the Aztecs have started brilliantly, losing to # 11 Baylor by just 10 and already recording wins over USC and a Long Beach State team coming off a win at # 9 Pittsburgh. They get a shot at # 15 Arizona this week and games against Creighton and # 23 California also loom.

Champion - Gonzaga
Lock - None
Bubble - St. Mary's, BYU

And in just forty minutes of basketball, Kevin Pangos introduced himself to the world and might have just woke up the ghosts of John Stockton, Dan Dickau and Derek Raivio. Pangos, the true freshman point guard for Gonzaga, dropped NINE threes on Washington State, tying Dickau's school record, and scored 33 points while dishing out 6 assists in an enthralling 89-81 victory. The Canadian was one of the few question marks coming in to the season for this Gonzaga team, as its frontcourt is among the best in college basketball with Elias Harris (12.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and 7'0 Robert Sacre (12.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg) beasting down low. Ironically, Stockton's son David is the leading returning assist man, with 2.2 a game last season, but he'll be coming off the bench if Pangos keeps his form up. Add in WCC All-Freshman member Sam Dower (7.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and incoming freshman Gary Bell, Washington's Mr. Basketball, and the Bulldogs are as deep and talented as they've been since Adam Morrison was in school and are a clear favorite to take the WCC as usual.

Also as usual, it's Saint Mary's who will be fighting them tooth and nail. A 25 win team was left at the NCAA altar last season when it couldn't beat Mark Few's boys in the WCC final and now ringleader Mickey McConnell is gone. That means it's time for Matthew Dellavedova (13.4 ppg, 5.3 apg) to assume McConnell's - and before him Patrick Mills' - role as the superstar Australian guard who leads this team and lights it up from deep. Helping him down low will be Rob Jones, the San Diego transfer who averaged 13.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game and is one of the toughest players in the league, if not the entire country. Apparently though, Randy Bennett still hasn't learned how to schedule because the only real nonconference game that will help the at-large profile is a trip to # 11 Baylor three days before Christmas in a Sweet 16 rematch of two years ago. And then there are the new boys. BYU, who is only in this league because it needed a spot to dump its non-football sports (and may not be here for long if the Big East or Big 12 come calling), may have picked the right year to jump to a cushier league because Jimmer's gone, as are backcourt mate Jackson Emery and forward Kyle Collinsworth. Brandon Davies (11.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) is back on the team after the controversy I'm not going to let myself rant about and UCLA transfer Matt Carlino will become eligible in December, potentially taking over the point guard position at some point after. Other than that, it's up to Noah Hartsock (8.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Charles Abouo (7.2 ppg) to keep the ship sailing. The Cougars have already lost at Utah State but there's never any shame in that and have upcoming dates at Nevada, Oregon and at Utah before getting the 11th ranked Bears just like St. Mary's but they get them at home. There's also a late January midweek trip to Virginia Tech where they could make the Hokies pay for beefing up their nonconference slate for a change.

That is a lot of spilled ink and there's more to come. Boy do I like college basketball. BCS leagues and bracket coming later in the week, perhaps not until Thanksgiving break itself due to a glut of schoolwork between now and then (isn't that how it always happens though?) There will probably be less hard numbers and info and more pure analysis since: I don't need to rely on a magazine as much and you probably already have a base knowledge about the BCS leagues. See you then.

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