Tuesday, December 27, 2011

32 Conferences In 2 Weeks - America East

We'll be going by conference RPI.  For why regular RPI is generally terrible but will unfortunately be cited often starting now-ish, read this...but conference RPI is still a valuable metric in terms of how good each conference is and thus we will use it to preview and predict conference season for each of the 32 leagues (sorry Cal State Bakersfield, Seattle, Longwood and Nebraska-Omaha.  One of you scored 58 in a half earlier this month, one of you is coached by Cameron Dollar and is somehow even fasterone of you is coached by Rod Barnes and 14th in the nation in 3 point percentage and the other of you is in its first ever Division 1 season but THAT'S ALL YOU GET.) 


Conference RPI (As Of Time Of Writing)
.4281 (31st of 32)

Non-Conference W-L
29-69 (29.59%, 29th of 32)

Highest Rated RPI Team
Maine (148th of 345)

The Skinny:
Welcome to what might be the most competitive league in the country.  It's been six years since T.J. Sorrentine made baskets from the land of parked cars.  Don't you feel old now?  But seriously, that was the last time an America East team won an NCAA tournament game.  Admittedly, the Jamar Wilson-led Albany teams that followed Sorrentine, Taylor Coppenrath and legendary coach Tom Brennan's Vermont held their own in the NCAAs; 2006's 16 seed put a real scare in to UConn and then 2007's team got the same respectable 13 seed that the 05 Catamounts got before getting blown away by the Fighting Sean Singletaries.  But since then, UMBC and Binghamton got back-to-back 15 seeds in 08 and 09 respectively before Vermont and defending champ Boston University regressed to the dreaded 16 the past two Marches with neither being competitive in their first round blowout losses (well, at least BU hung around for a while...but the Catamounts got an ice-cold dish of revenge.)
College sports will never matter in New York and New England like they do in other areas of the country, so it comes as no surprise that a league comprised of the SUNYs, representatives from each of the New England states save for Rhode Island and the outlier that is Maryland-Baltimore County is traditionally at the bottom of the D-1 barrel and this year is no different.  No team is in the top 150 of KenPom and only the Black Bears (barely) crack the top 150 of RPI.  Going back to the lede, the good news is that this should make for an incredibly competitive conference season - at least in the two clear divisions that have formed inside of it.  Maine, Vermont, Albany, Stony Brook and Boston University are the Haves and each has a real shot at the conference title.  The other four have a combined 5 wins and 4 of those are from New Hampshire.  The bottom 3 are a combined 1-33.  That's not a misprint.

The Teams:
My preseason pick to win this league was Stony Brook, who returned all five starters from a team that came a basket short of the NCAAs last March but the Seawolves have actually been something of a disappointment.  For such an experienced team, it's not just the fact that they're 4-6, it's the amount they're getting blown out that is particularly discouraging.  Three of their six losses are by double digits - one to Indiana on opening night (acceptable) and two to Sacred Heart (far) and Boston College (FAR less acceptable.)  They played Northwestern tooth and nail in Evanston...and then turned around and lost to an awful Eastern Illinois squad so consistency is an issue as well.  To be blunt, this is a really small team that can't shoot.  The heights of the returning starters: 6'2, 6'1, 6'7, 6'5, 6'4 and when only one is hitting 50% of his twos and none are making 36% of their threes then that's a problem far bigger than any of them.  Ironically, they're 48th in the nation in rebounds per game and even better on the offensive glass - probably a product of getting so much practice from being 315th in field goal percentage.  But no matter how much the small lineup - only one contributor off the bench is taller than 6'7 - crashes the boards, it comes back to the fact that Stony Brook can't shoot (311th) or stop (300th) the two point shot.  They better improve quickly, because on Monday they welcome in...
...Vermont in what might be a (very) early crucial game in America East play.  Just ask Creighton how important opening conference season is when you're among hunted like the Seawolves and Catamounts will both be.  Mike Longeran, a former Gary Williams assistant at Maryland, ditched Burlington to come back closer to Maryland and lose a lot in the nation's capital but his old team actually started 4-2 without him including an impressive overtime win at Old Dominion with the two losses coming to the Big East's South Florida and Northeast preseason favorite Long Island by a combined 7 points.  But then they dropped five in a row including home heartbreakers to mid major powers Harvard and Iona with a couple of awful losses at Yale and home to Quinnipiac thrown in.  They've won two in a row against Farleigh Dickinson and winless-for-over-a-year Towson to get to 6-7 and they're the slowest team in one of the slower conferences in the country, which should give them a natural advantage and ensure they're in a lot of close games like they have been so far (8 of 13 decided by single digits and 6 of those were by 5 points or less.)  Of the "haves," no one has a faster adjusted tempo than 234th and John Becker's boys are the slowest at 321st so they should be in a lot of 64-62 or even 54-52 type games against the other contenders that will go a long way to determining this league's champion.  They could open conference season with two of them, as after the trip to Suffolk County comes a visit from...
...Boston University.  In fact, Vermont and Boston U are in many ways the UNC and Duke of the America East.  Going back to 2001-2002, they have combined for 7 regular season America East titles and 6 conference tournament victories (and subsequent NCAA births.)  The Albanys and Stony Brooks have caught up but the Catamounts and Terriers continue to be the two teams you think of when you think of this league. The fact that both have been the powers of the past decade is evidenced in the fact that just like Vermont lost coach Mike Longeran to George Washington in the offseason, the Terriers lost Patrick Chambers to Penn State when Ed DeChellis shockingly left for Navy.  Not shockingly, they've struggled under new head man Joe Jones.  In fact, they've literally lost 4, won 4 (including a convincing second half performance at rival BC) and are currently on a second 4 game losing streak.  So at least they're consistently inconsistent?  To be fair, a 52nd ranked nonconference strength of schedule masks the team's true abilities and there are no shame in 6 of the 8 losses: Texas, Cleveland State (by a point on Rhode Island's floor), Saint Joseph's (by 7 at Hawk Hill), Beantown king Harvard, at Villanova and defending Patriot champion Bucknell.  But they shouldn't expect to win their next 4, as the next 3 are on the road including the aforementioned league opener at Vermont.  The second league road game might not be any easier...
...because it's a trip up to Maine.  But remember, RPI is fatally flawed and Maine only has the top one in the league because it has played the 230th best nonconference schedule and its six wins are over the murderer's row that is Maine Machias (obviously non-D1.  Obviously), Holy Cross, @Rhode Island (by 2 in OT), Utah Valley, Eastern Illinois, @Brown.  They at least pushed Notre Dame hard (which looks better now) but something like a 77-63 loss at an awful, depleted San Diego program seems to indicate that these guys have a relatively low ceiling.  Thought Stony Brook's starting lineup was tiny?  Maine's is even smaller at 6'3, 6'7, 6'3, 6'0 and 5'9 but the difference is that these little guys can score.  Gerald McLemore plays almost 36 minutes a game and scores 20 a night while backcourt mate Justin Edwards averages 31.4 minutes and scores 17.3 a game while pulling down 6 and a half rebounds.  Add in Alasdair Fraser's 13.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and absolutely fantastic name and this might be the deadliest offensive trio in the league.  With all three making 50% of their field goals or better, it also might be the most efficient.  Again though, they've beaten nobody and their best win is a loss to Notre Dame (although Notre Dame knows something about the best win on your resume being a loss.)  Unlike Vermont and Boston U, the Black Bears get a layup of a conference road opener at Binghamton.  But their second league road game isn't as easy...
...because it comes at Albany, a team that is presently recovering from a Ukrainian ambush and has had a nightmare of a time on defense all year; giving up 89 in their opener to a Pittsburgh team that would have trouble getting to that number against high school teams at the moment, letting Maryland explode for 83 last night in a 11 point victory (both season highs for my Terps and the first time we've cracked 80 or won by double figures) and everywhere in between.  But the Great Danes also have the best offense in the America East, barely edging out their counterparts at Maine - and these two teams truly ARE counterparts.  Think McLemore's the league's leading scorer?  Think again, because it's Geraldo Suero, who has not only filled Tim Ambrose's shoes but stuffed them even more than your average Christmas stocking by surpassing Ambrose's 16.8 PPG last season with 21.5 a night so far this season, good for a tie for 5th in the nation with Terrell Stoglin (the sole leader of the aforementioned Terps before Mr. Len showed up last night) and just ahead of the same Nate Wolters I haven't been able to shut up about recently.  Suero is also the team's co-leading rebounder with 5.1 a game and he's second on the team in assists dishing out 2.7 per contest as well as steals with 1.1 a game so as he goes, the team goes but teammates Logan Aronhalt (15.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.4 APG) and Mike Black (12.3 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.3 SPG) complete a triumvirate that at least equals the one up in Orono.
Now we enter the lower class of the league, of which New Hampshire can proudly say they're at the top of simply by way of not being one of the other three members.  For what it's worth, the Wildcats were more competitive at BC than Stony Brook was (but not as competitive as Boston U was!) and actually have one of the nation's best defenses statistically.  34th in the country in 3 point percentage defense (28.7%), 25th at free throw percentage defense (63.4% - yes I know teams do not actually defend free throws), and 17th in offensive rebound percentage defense (25.7%), the problems in the Granite State are entirely offensive.  They're averaging just 60 points a game flat in 8 games against Division 1 competition and are 3-5 in those games, including losses to Loyola (MD), Holy Cross, Fairfield and Providence to go along with BC.  On a more macro scale, the program hasn't won more than 14 games in a season since Bill Clinton was President and it's hard to see this year's outfit breaking the nearing-two-decade trend of consistent losing.  They have the league's leading rebounder in Brian Benson (9.9 RPG) and its sixth leading scorer (Alvin Abreu, 14.1 PPG) but not much else - literally.  Only five teams in the country give a lower percentage of minutes to their bench.
Here we go.  UMBC had a miracle year in 2008 when Jay Greene and company "did the double" (to use a European soccer term) in winning both the America East regular season and tournament crowns...but it was their first tournament appearance in their 22 year Division 1 history and after a respectable 15 win follow-up campaign, they've won exactly 10 games in the past two and a half seasons and counting.  4-26 in 2009-2010, 5-25 last year and 1-11 so far this year, the Retrievers are back to being one of the 10 worst programs in all of Division 1.  Somehow, they're not even the worst Division 1 program in its own county, as the one win was over Towson by 4 and they only get the bronze medal of sucktitude in their own league, which goes to show you how terrible low major basketball can be.  Consider it a successful year if they top last year's win total.  They just gave up 92 and lost by 17 at 5-8 Niagara on Wednesday, which kind of sums things up here.
...Seriously, how is UMBC not the worst team in this league?  How is it not even the second worst?!  That title goes to Hartford, which has a case for being the program with the biggest gap in quality between its women's and men's programs.  The ladies have won at least 18 games in every season since 2003-2004.  The records of the men's team in each season, past to present?  12-17, 8-20, 13-15, 13-18, 18-16, 7-26, 8-22, 11-20 and this year they are winless in 11 tries, the latest of which was a heartbreaking double overtime lost at Marist on the 21st.  At least four of their last five have been decided by single digits and they force a lot of turnovers, particularly steals (76th in nation in steal%.)  That's about all the nice things that can be said.
Not surprisingly, Wikipedia can sum up Binghamton basketball at present far better than I can.  Basically, Kevin Broadus put Nick Nolte in "Blue Chips" to shame and now the entire program is paying for it.  Poor Mark Macon.  He's gone 13-18, 8-23 and now he's winless in 11 to start 2011-2012 in the aftermath of the scandal but unlike John Gallagher's Hawks down in Hartford, the Bearcats haven't even been close.  Between an opening day 4 point loss to Colgate and Wednesday's 9 point loss at Canisius, the middle 9 losses all came by double digits.  They could only get to 43 at St. Peter's and a week later gave up 88 to Missouri.  As noted in the Great West preview, they and Chicago State are the only two teams in the country in the bottom 10 of KenPom's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings.  They're awful at just about everything except - ironically - free throw shooting.  They shoot 73.5% from the charity stripe, good 50th in the country.  Now they just need to get in to some more close games where it might make a difference.

Top 3 Games To Watch
1) Vermont @ Albany, February 15.  In truth, this should be one of the leagues with a top 5 games to watch because of all the parity but it's the crappy America East so we'll stick with 3.  But these two look like they could be the two best in the conference and the mid-February matchup of arguably the league's best offense and defense where tempo will be key is the tastiest of the league slate.  These two teams have a combined 3 conference games after this one: both play Binghamton and the Catamounts host UMBC.  Basically, if any one game could determine the conference title, this one has the best shot of doing so.
2) Maine @ Stony Brook, February 26.  What is sure to be an emotional senior night for arguably the greatest class in the history of Stony Brook basketball, starters Brian Dougher and Dallis Joyner as well as key reserve Al Rapier could play their last regular season home games for a conference title if they can win at Vermont exactly two weeks before.  This too features one of the league's best offenses facing one of its top defenses and like already noted features two of the smallest teams in the country (301st at 310th in KenPom's effective height, to be certain) and should play a key role in conference tournament seeding, if absolutely nothing else.
3) Vermont @ Boston University, February 1.  Like I said before, this is the UNC/Duke - or perhaps the analogy is Yankees/Red Sox given the location of the country? - of the America East.  The two games these two play against each other always play a key role in determining how this conference shakes down and this one in particular is a huge one for the Terriers.  It's their home oasis in a crucial 4 game stretch that includes trips to Stony Brook and Albany.  If they don't win this, they may need to get both of those to stay alive in the title race.

Top 3 Players To Watch
1) Geraldo Suero, G, Albany.  The 6'4 senior from the Dominican Republic does it all for the Great Danes as noted in their paragraph.  He's one of the best slashers in the country, shooting a very high percentage of his team's shots and is third in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (8.4.)  Needless to say he will be a difference maker one way or the other in the numerous close games Albany is sure to play competing for the regular season title.
2) Darryl Partin, G, Boston University.  I really did understate his importance to the Terriers in their section.  7th in the nation in both the percentages of possessions he uses and shots he takes, he has to be in any true "Most Valuable Player" in college basketball conversation.  The 6'6 senior from Seattle could be lighting it up in Lorenzo Romar's backcourt with T-Ross, Abdul Gaddy and company but instead is on the opposite coast carrying an America East school.  He's a real gunner though, so when he's off is when his team tends to slump the most.
3) Brian Voelkel, F, Vermont.  Every basketball team needs Brian Voelkels.  All of them.  Not to villify Partin but he's top 7 in the nation in possession usage.  Brian Voelkel's top 7 in possession usage on his own team and yet he leads both it and the conference in both assists with 5.3 a game (.4 more than anyone else in the conference) and is also his team's leader in rebounds with 8 a game, which is also good for third in the league (and first among players on contending teams.)  Anyone who thinks you need to score to be a highly effective basketball player needs to take a closer look at last year's America East Rookie of the Year, who could earn even more plaudits this spring.

Projected All Conference
Geraldo Suero, G, Albany
Darryl Partin, G, Boston University
Gerald McLemore, G, Maine
Brian Voekel, F, Vermont
Brian Benson, F, New Hampshire (honestly, this team really should be a four guard team with either Albany's Logan Aronhalt or Maine's Justin Edwards getting the final nod, but we'll throw a bone to the league's leading rebounder.)

Projected Finishing Order (Bold = Auto Bid, Italics = at large)
1) Vermont (In a league full of parity and certainty, don't you have to go with Old Reliable?  Voelkel and their tempo makes the Catamounts unique.)
2) Stony Brook (the experienced lineup falls just short)
3) Albany (their inability to defend will be their undoing)
4) Boston University (transition year)
5) Maine (poor man's Albany.  Honestly though, your guess for 1-5 may be as good as mine.)
6) New Hampshire
8) Hartford
9) Binghamton

Monday, December 26, 2011

32 Conferences In 2 Weeks - Great West

We'll be going by conference RPI.  For why regular RPI is generally terrible but will unfortunately be cited often starting now-ish, read this...but conference RPI is still a valuable metric in terms of how good each conference is and thus we will use it to preview and predict conference season for each of the 32 leagues (sorry Cal State Bakersfield, Seattle, Longwood and Nebraska-Omaha.  One of you scored 58 in a half earlier this month, one of you is coached by Cameron Dollar and is somehow even faster, one of you is coached by Rod Barnes and 14th in the nation in 3 point percentage and the other of you is in its first ever Division 1 season but THAT'S ALL YOU GET.)

We'll start with the worst - not-so-coincidentally the only one without an automatic NCAA tournament bid - and ascend to the best over the course of the next couple of weeks as conference play begins across the nation, finally arriving there sometime during the day of some stupid rematch.  Off we go.


Conference RPI (As Of Time Of Writing)
.4234 (32nd of 32)

Non-Conference W-L
14-51 (21.54%, 31st of 32)

Highest Rated RPI Team (This Is Why RPI Is Flawed - Part I)
Houston Baptist (244th of 345)

The Skinny:
Formed in 2008 as a buffer league mostly for schools transitioning to Division 1 college basketball, the Great West was formed pretty much for the sole purpose of giving Independents teams to play during conference season.  It makes no sense to have a league with teams ranging from New Jersey to Utah (okay, maybe that's not true anymore) but it is a league constantly in flux regarding membership and this is why it is the only one in the nation that does not have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.  Instead, it sends its champion to the CollegeInsiders.com Postseason Tournament, which is kind of silly considering that the NIT (who now rightly has automatic bids for all regular season conference champions that do not win their conference tournaments and don't make the NCAA's) can't find a spot for this league's champ but I digress.
Anyway, I suppose the NIT's opposing argument to this would be, "you really expect us to hold a spot for the champion of a league that does not have a team in the top 240 of RPI OR the top 250 of KenPom (get it if you like college basketball - its ratings and/or numbers will occasionally, but not frequently to respect the pay aspect, be used here) at present?"  And it admittedly would be a fair one.  Utah Valley, a whopping 280th in RPI and 254th in KenPom, is your defending regular season champion, preseason favorite and current favorite to retain the throne with 2011 tournament champion North Dakota as probably their closest challenger.

The Body:
To be frank, everyone is just so...bad.  Utah Valley, the clear cut best team, is just 6-8 overall and is 3-7 in its last 10 games (of course, that particular stat won't start mattering for another month or two but it's telling here) with two of those wins coming over non Division 1 Haskell and a Northern Illinois team that might as well be non Division 1 (more on them when we get to the MAC...boy is the bottom of that league bad.)  They take pretty good care of the basketball, defend the 3 well and rebound surprisingly well for a team of limited size, ranking 93rd in the country in rebounds per game despite just one starter over 6'6.  But that one starter - Geddes Robinson - is an absolute rebounding machine, grabbing almost 10 a game (9.9) with a season high 17 in a three point loss to Georgia State 9 days ago.  He's also the team's second leading scorer with 10.9 points per game.  He and feisty guards 2011 Great West Newcomer and Player of the Year Isiah Williams (14.5 PPG, 2.0 APG, 0.9 SPG) and coach's son Holton Hunsaker (7.2 PPG, 2.4 APG, 1.3 SPG) lead a well-coached team that is a rare model of consistency in this league and should win it if it can survive its four game road swing from February 2-11 and a season ending trip to...
...North Dakota, which did little with its automatic CIT bid last season, is 5-7 and struggling even more than the Wolverines at present, having dropped 6 of 8.  The bad (well, worse) news is that one of the two wins in that stretch was by 8 over non Division 1 Jamestown.  The good news is that the other win was one of the shockers of the season: an 89-70 blowout of the Fighting Nate Wolters just five days after South Dakota State had beaten them by 38 in Brookings.  The Fighting Sioux shot 34/58 from the floor in the rematch (56.8%) and they attempt to push the tempo as much as possible with four starters scoring in double figures, although it's Troy Huff (13.5 PPG) who gets the lion's share of the shots.  But with his field goal percentage of .381 lagging well behind that of Aaron Anderson's .533 and Jamal Webb's .489, perhaps distributing the ball more (1.9 APG, compared to Webb's 3.8 and Anderson's 2.7) would do the team well if they want to win the conference title before moving to the Big Sky and retiring the Fighting Sioux nickname (for shame) next year.
Also on the way out after 2011-2012 is Houston Baptist, who will be joining the Southland in 2013.  For now, they're the highest rated RPI team in this league and the second fastest team in the entire country behind VMI, who has led the nation in scoring 5 years running and is the current leader with 87.4 points per game so far this year.  By contrast, the Huskies "only" average 75.5 a night, which is a problem when the 71 points they conceded to Santa Clara in a one point win on Wednesday was a season low - and the first time that they had given up less than their average offensive output since a November 18 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette.  No wonder they've struggled so much.  Their defense forces a ton of turnovers (at least in part because of the fast tempo) but doesn't really do anything else well and it's hard to see these guys, who were picked joint-bottom of the conference in preseason, competing for the league title.  The good news at least is that they've already matched last season's win total, which obviously means progress is being made (not that that is saying much for these guys and in this league.)
But for as bad as the Huskies may be at defense, NJIT is just as bad if not worse at offense.  341st of 345 teams in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency, dead last in offensive rebound percentage, 337th in 3 point percentage...it's just a horror show whenever the Highlanders have the ball.  Perhaps that is why they own just one Division 1 win so far, a one point win at Army on November 30, and their last three losses were to Georgetown, Seton Hall and Rutgers by an average of 31.3 points.  Actually picked to win this league last year and picked to finish third this season (getting just one less point than second place North Dakota in the preseason coaches poll), they at least have admittedly have come a long way from when they won one game in two years.  If nothing else, they defend the 3 well - ranking 43rd in the nation in 3 point percentage defense (29.5%.)  That's four spots ahead of...
...Texas Pan American, who checks in at 47th by only allowing opponents to sink 29.7% of their treys.  In fact, St. John's was just 5/15 from long distance on Wednesday (actually a well-above average night from 3 for that team but more on them when we get to their league about 30 leagues from now :D) but the Red Storm were able to make a whopping 56.4% of their twos (22/39), allowing them to escape with a 5 point win on Wednesday.  The Broncs - yes, someone besides Rider has this bizarre name - will probably continue to struggle with defense inside the arc as they are one of the smallest teams in the country with no starter checking in above 6'7 and just three of their 10 contributors over 6'6.  At least they are also one of the most experienced, with all but two of the contributors being upperclassmen.  If they can score points - their offense is little better than NJIT's statistically and produced ugly 35 and 36 point outputs in their two top 100 competition games against Ohio State and Northwestern respectively - they could be a sleeper in this league.
The one team who could not be a sleeper in this league is probably Chicago State.  0-13 on the season and with 22 straight losses dating back to last season, the fact that they're somehow almost in the top 300 of RPI further goes to show you just what a flawed metric that is.  Arguably the worst team in the country, they and Binghamton are the only two teams in the nation to rank in the bottom 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.  They lost by 17 at 4-10 North Carolina A&T, 16 at 3-8 Southern Illinois and by 15 at 5-7 Loyola Chicago to go along with some women's-esque scores in losses at Iowa (96-53), Creighton (95-61), Illinois (90-43), Illinois State (85-41) and Wichita State (94-44.)  There's about a 1 in 10 chance they go winless and if they can't hold serve at home at least once in league play or beat SIU Edwardsville on Senior Night, they probably won't beat a Division 1 team all season.  Or maybe they'll make a miracle run to the CIT on their home floor in the conference tournament?  Dare to dream.

Top 3 Games To Watch
1) Utah Valley @ North Dakota, March 3.  Senior Day in Grand Forks between the defending regular season and tournament champions could determine this year's regular season title and the 1 seed in the conference tournament.
2) North Dakota @ Utah Valley, January 21.  Round 1 in Orem comes four days after an intriguing upset shot at in-state rival North Dakota State for the visitors, while the hosts will essentially be out to an early 3-love lead on the rest of the conference should they win this, with home games against Chicago State and NJIT to immediately follow.
3) NJIT @ Chicago State, February 4.  337th in the nation in 3 point percentage visits 339th, 302nd in two point percentage hosts 311th...no matter how you slice it, these are two of the least efficient, most overall worst offenses regardless of pace in the entire country.  Considering the possibility (probability?) of the host Cougars pushing this one to their max tempo, it may take a true basketball connoisseur to appreciate the amount of bad shots that could be thrown up in that one.

Top 3 Players To Watch
1) Isiah Williams, G, Utah Valley.  The first ever Utah Valley All-American when he made honorable mention for the Associated Press in 2010-2011, the JUCO transfer from the College of Eastern Utah will be looking to cap off his senior year by leading his Wolverines to the Great West tournament title that eluded them last season back in his home town of Chicago, where he was Farragut High's leading 3 point scorer in school history.
2) Isaiah Wilkerson, G, NJIT.  Even more than his namesake above, he is a prophet to his team (sorry.)  The Great West's leading scorer at an even 15 points per game, he's also 9th in the league in rebounding and leads his team in grabbing 5.3 rebounds a game.  Add in the fact that he's tied with backcourt mate Chris Flores for third in the conference with 1.7 steals a game and he is the reason why NJIT could surprise if he can get just a little bit more help - particularly on offense.
3) Geddes Robinson, F, Utah Valley.  When you average as many rebounds a game (10.1) as John Henson and .1 more than Anthony Davis - who will both be NBA lottery picks in the summer - you know you're doing something right on the glass.  The 6'5, 230 pound senior went from the Bronx to God's Academy in Dallas to Jacksonville State to Western Omaha Community College to Orem last year where he has finally found some stability and while three inches shorter than even the undersized low major God Kenneth Faried, Robinson clearly has the same pure rebounding ability.

Projected All Conference
Isiah Williams, G, Utah Valley
Isaiah Wilkerson, G, NJIT
Geddes Robinson, F, Utah Valley
Holton Hunsaker, F, Utah Valley
Joe Latas, C, Houston Baptist (this is one of the smallest leagues in the country: Houston Baptist, with the 6'11 Latas - arguably the best pure center in the league with his 10 points, 6 rebounds and .8 assists a game - is 333rd in the nation in average height because three of the other starters are 6'0, 6'0 and 5'7.  Texas Pan American, whose height deficiencies I talked about, is 301st in average height; NJIT is 310th; Chicago State - thanks to 6'9 Jeremy Robinson who's listed as a forward but his 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game say otherwise - is 262nd, which is good for second tallest in the conference behind Utah Valley at 255th.)

Projected Finishing Order (Bold = Auto Bid, Italics = at large)
1) Utah Valley (maybe because they're bigger than everyone else?  Alternatively: Williams, Robinson, and Hunsaker mean they have the right mix of experience and talent.)
2) North Dakota
4) Texas Pan American
5) Houston Baptist
6) Chicago State

Monday, December 19, 2011

College Basketball Picks: Monday, December 19

If one is truly a die hard college basketball fan, they're always on the lookout for that sleeper to break out when it's bracket time in March.  It's hard to get an edge when picking brackets - unless you know the teams that most of the population does not.  And come on, how can you not love The Nate Wolters Show?

 "I haven't seen a performance like that since Jason Kidd was in the Pac-10," Lorenzo Romar said. "The guy played the entire game without a turnover. Without a turnover. Seven assists. Thirty-four points. That's a heckuva game.
"Their guys played off of him and some of their other guys scored because of the pressure he put on our team. I thought it was an awesome performance."

There might not be a pair of better matchups between guards in college basketball than the two times Wolters and Oakland's Reggie Hamilton, who did this on Saturday to cap a 41 point, 4 rebound, 3 assist and 4 steal performance to win at Valparaiso, hook up.  That's a win that could prove crucial for the Golden Grizzlies, who go to Arizona tomorrow to try and match the win over a Pac-12 team that Wolters and his ridiculous statline from yesterday.  The two teams meet in just 11 days in Sioux Falls on December 30 - game 4 of the Summit conference season for each.  Both sit at 2-0 as we speak.  The Golden Grizz hung 59 on 'em in the first HALF in the Summit semis back in March en route to cruising to a 110-90 win (guess the over hit) but that team had a dominating inside presence in Keith Benson.  With both of these teams entirely backcourt orientated, it should be even more fun and could make the duel between Wolters and Hamilton all that much more important.

Now then, to today's games.

Monday, December 19
Howard @ # 17 Indiana (6:30 PM, BTN)
Indiana's going for its first 11-0 start since Gerald Ford was President.  Howard hasn't won 11 games in a season since George W. Bush was in his first term as President.  Now do you understand why this is a 28 and a half point spread?  That's one and a half more than the number of consecutive road losses the Bison will have after tonight!

Belmont @ Marshall (7 PM)
BracketBusters In December - Part I!  You should know about the Bruins from last year (they have EVERYONE back) whereas the Herd have already won at Cincinnati, crushed Iona and have two losses: by 2 to Ohio and by 6 at Syracuse.  This year's Belmont actually was its most impressive on opening night in a 1 point loss at Duke but has had some puzzling performances recently, most notably in a stunning loss on Saturday to Miami (Ohio.)  Damier Pitts and DeAndre Kane - maybe the best backcourt you've never heard of - gets it done against all of the visiting team's experience.

Mississippi Valley State @ # 11 Florida (7 PM, FS Florida)
There's no spread for this and thank God for the Delta Devils.  They're 290th in the Ken Pomeroy rankings.  Florida's 11th.  Florida has arguably the deepest backcourt in the country, rolling four deep with Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Brad Beal and Mike Rosario.  Mississippi Valley State has the worst 3 point percentage defense in Division 1 college basketball (45.2%.)  Oh hamburgers.

Lipscomb @ Memphis (7 PM, CSS)
Could they possibly blow this one too?  Nah.  Lipscomb lost at Tennessee Tech, for god's sake.

Nicholls @ # 5 North Carolina (7 PM, ESPNU)
It's not every day you see a 37.5 point college basketball spread but here we are.

N.C. Greensboro @ # 7 Duke (7 PM, ACC Network/RSN)
And yet if Carolina's not careful, they won't even win by the most on Tobacco Road tonight.

Cornell @ # 25 Illinois (8 PM, ESPN3)
Well it was only a matter of time before the scoring problems reared their ugly head against the wrong team at the wrong time.  Good thing Steve Donahue and Ryan Wittman aren't in Ithaca anymore.

Longwood @ Vanderbilt (8 PM)
Good night to work out the kinks.  Lancers have literally the worst defense in the country.

# 23 Creighton @ Tulsa (8 PM)
BracketBusters In December: Part II!  A lot of mid major guards are getting props this year - Wolters, Hamilton, Casper Ware at Long Beach State - but nobody ever talks about Doug McDermott.  He's only averaging 24.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.  Bluejays will be looking to match or better what Valley title rival Wichita State did last week.  The two meet on New Year's Eve in Kansas.

Wyoming @ Denver (8 PM, ROOT Sports Rocky Mountain)
BracketBuster # 3!   The over/under for this one is 114 and that might be way too high.  We're talking about the 6th slowest team in the country hosting the 24th slowest.  We're talking about a defense that hasn't conceded 60 all season and one that has only given up more than 65 in its two losses to California and Iona - no shame in either.  Add in the altitude and somebody's not getting to 60 tonight.  Watch out for either team in March.

Portland @ Utah (9 PM)
CSU Bakersfield @ Colorado (9 PM)
The newest and probably worst basketball playing members of the Pac-12 both get a chance to fail further tonight.  The Utes host a team that's lost 8 of 9 and hasn't beaten a Division 1 opponent all season.  The Buffs get Rod Barnes' Roadrunners, who have dropped 4 of 5 themselves with the lone oasis being by 3 over Sacramento State.  If either loses...

Davidson v. # 12 Kansas (9 PM, ESPNU)
No, it's not quite PTI's April Fools but it's a decent litmus test for both teams at the Sprint Center.  Line is at about 13.5.  If KU's really thinking about defending its Big 12 crown from Missouri and Baylor, they cover that easy against a team that just lost by 23 at Charlotte.

Temple @ Rice (9 PM, CSS)
Owls led most of the first half at Texas before fading in the final 10 minutes.  I'm assuming they just went right to Houston for this one.  They should win this one comfortably but you never truly know with the Owls.

# 10 Marquette @ LSU (9 PM, SEC Network/RSN)
Trent Johnson's boys can play D.  They haven't given up 60 since before Thanksgiving.  That'll change tonight since they're facing a juggernaut of an offense (and a team.)  How long can they hang though?

Louisiana Monroe @ #21 UNLV (10 PM)
Warhawks are 1-10 with the lone victory over Nicholls.  Something tells me the Rebs shouldn't have their usual problems getting started early.

Southern Mississippi @ Arizona State (10 PM, FSN)
One just beat an in-state rival that's bigger than it.  The other just lost to one far smaller.

TCU @ USC (10:30 PM)
Scores of USC games this season: 66-59, 64-61 2 OT (yes, two), 56-54, 42-36 (this was a home loss...to Cal Poly), 65-62, 66-55, 63-60, 56-35, 55-40, 44-41, 63-59.  They are repulsive.  How the hell did the Horned Frogs beat Virginia?  They lost at home to Nebraska on Saturday - a real missed opportunity.  Now they're about to help set basketball back 50 years.

UC Santa Barbara @ California (10:30 PM)
BracketBusters in December, Part IV.  Wait, does the Pac-12 count as a BracketBuster league yet?  More importantly, can Jorge Gutierrez do to Orlando Johnson what he did to Damian Lillard?  The Gauchos are ruing that near miss at Washington even more after the Wolters show yesterday.  Here's their chance to make amends.  They won't, because Cal's a lot better than Washington - and possibly a lot better than people are giving them credit for.  Their SMALLEST margin of victory this year is 16.  But this is a good matchup for the Gauchos, who won't feel their size disadvantage like they often do in games like this.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cover to Cover Saturday: 12/11 Part III - Welcome Back, Indiana

-The NHL has its "Original Six" and so does college basketball, for all intents and purposes.  There's just a different air around UCLA (who it's easy to remember is less than five years removed from back-to-back Final Fours and, for as bad as it is this season, isn't even playing at home), North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and - yes, Indiana.  Wake up the echoes of Knight and Alford and Smart (even though none of them are dead yet) and add a place in Hoosier basketball lore for Christian Watford, who showed up to play for Tom Crean in 2009-2010, a year in which the team went 10-21 and lost to Boston University and Loyola (MD) among many others after the team was completely stripped down in light of Kelvin Sampson's recruiting violations.  Today, as I'm sure you know if you're reading this blog, he hit the game winning three from the left wing to topple top-ranked Kentucky in a game where the Hoosiers survived 55.6% shooting (30/54) from their opponents thanks to scorching the nets with 60% shooting from three point range (9/15.)  Watford's three was one of a team-high four with fellow junior Jordan Hulls sinking three but arguably the biggest yeoman's effort of the day belonged - as it was going to in pretty much any possible Indiana victory - to Tyler Zeller who won the battle of the superstar freshmen big men with 11 points and 7 rebounds, 5 of them offensive, and just 2 personal fouls in 37 minutes.  His opposite number, Anthony Davis, played over a quarter of a game less, logging 6 points on 3/4 shooting and 9 rebounds in only 24 minutes on the floor thanks to his four fouls.  But despite their big man being a virtual non-factor, the Cats STILL should have won if they could just make.  their.  free.  throws.  It's been the running joke-that's-not-really-a-joke: John Calipari teams cannot shoot free throws, particularly not in big moments and it has cost them games far bigger than this one and will continue to cost them games until it changes.  On the bright side for the Cats, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has asserted himself as the second-best player on the team (at worst) with an 18 point effort on a whopping 9/12 shooting day while also tying Davis with a team-high 9 rebounds.  For much of the day, he looked like the only player worthy of being on a top-ranked team, with Doron Lamb's play patchy - including that missed free throw with 5.6 to go that, had converted, would have meant that Watford's shot only forced an overtime the Wildcats quite frankly most likely win if they keep Davis on the court.  Rarely does a game and/or a rivalry live up to the hype but this one did.  Bravo to both teams.  From the Journal-Gazette:

"I'm proud of my team," UK coach John Calipari said afterward. "I'm proud of the way they played, how they gutted it out."
Hoosiers coach Tom Crean was probably a little prouder.
"I got my first Gatorade bath," he said. "Our fans deserve that. They deserve to storm the court. They deserve to stand on tables and chairs."
They did that and more. Jubilation spilled out onto the streets and spread across campus as IU improved to 9-0 for the first time since the 1989-90 season, delivering a potential program-changing upset for itself and the first loss of the season for Kentucky (8-1). The deafening atmosphere - with almost every one of the 17,472 in attendance screeching for the home team - mirrored the one in Rupp Arena a week earlier.

-Oh look.  Penn State embarrassed itself again.  I'm still not sure how every underclassman at that school hasn't submitted transfer papers already (for reasons far beyond sports obviously) and it's hard to imagine this team getting much worse with the effect that all the Jerry Sandusky controversy will probably have on recruiting but that might be where we're heading.  For this season, they could be the Otelul Galati to the Big Ten's Group C.  Well, on second thought - there's always Iowa too.  No, the Dukes don't get to be taken seriously until they show us some real results in Atlantic 10 play like they've failed to in previous years.

-If college basketball gave out bids for effort against adversity, Long Beach State would be in the top overall seed conversation.  Much has been made about their treacherous nonconference schedule but it bears repeating just how impressive it is for a Big West school to compete hard at Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday then turn around and fight 4th ranked UNC to the wire at the Dean Dome today but that's just what "The Beach" (brilliant uniforms, by the way - that's a school that "gets it" in regards to recruiting, no wonder overlooked studs like the picture Casper Ware want to play there.  Well, that and the fact that it's Long Beach, CA) did this week.  These performances should matter in March in terms of seeding (coupled with the win at Pitt, of course) should the 49ers make no mistakes in the Big West tournament (or get an at-large if they do - too soon to tell if that's possible but beating Xavier on the 22nd would be a big help) where UC Santa Barbara looks to be the only serious competition unless Dan Monson's boys go freezing cold on the wrong night against Cal Poly but after hanging in until the final whistle at two of the toughest places to play in the sport, the Gauchos and Mustangs surely aren't as imposing.  And as for the Heels...there was the UNLV slip up, then the disaster of an offensive night in the win against Wisconsin, then Anthony Davis swatting John Henson last weekend and now this unsatisfying win.  I know, I know, first world problems and all that but for a team that was everyone's preseason pick to win the ACC going away (and very possibly the national title) to not even look like a Final Four outfit is a bit disappointing.  Luckily, the ACC is just as bad if not worse than expected so the Heels should be able to still skate through it with 2 or 3 losses or fewer.  Unluckily, two of those losses might be to Duke, who should definitely pose more of a challenge than previously thought, and those games might cost UNC the conference title and a # 1 seed if the Heels don't improve like last year's version did at the turn of the new year.

-And in the side of Baltimore that "The Wire" didn't show you, UMBC took out Towson to win its first game of the year and keep its county rivals winless.  If the Tigers don't win one out of their next three at Coppin State and versus Manhattan and Vermont, they will go 365 days without a win (their last one was December 29, 2010 at La Salle in overtime.)  And Sunday December 11 marks the one year anniversary of their last regulation victory - in this very same matchup last year (yes, Braxton Dupree was the best player on the floor, which shows you just how bad both teams are/were.)  Needless to say, the Ravens definitely have some city pride to restore (even though neither school is part of Baltimore City, which is different than Baltimore County but this isn't a Maryland geography lesson.)

-After getting unexpectedly pushed by Marshall in midweek, about-to-be-top-ranked Syracuse is back to its cruising ways, easily dispatching of George Washington.  Controversial, considering the ongoing Bernie Fine case?  Absolutely.  But even though he coached them for a time, Fine has nothing to do with this, er, fine basketball club.  Their first true road game comes next Saturday at N.C. State - not exactly the classiest crowd around either.  There might not be a deeper, more experienced team in the country inside and out and it's a team that shouldn't have a problem still being unbeaten when also-perfect Marquette comes to the Carrier Dome on January 7.

-66-59.  64-61 in double overtime.  56-54.  42-36.  65-62.  66-55.  63-60.  56-35.  55-40.  And now 44-41.  That's the list of the final scores in the University of Southern California's ten basketball games so far this season.  They're 4-6 with today's loss to a New Mexico team that went the final 14 minutes and 16 seconds without a field goal but converted 11 free throws in that time span.  USC, by comparison, attempted 5 free throws the entire game.  Here's the fun part.  KenPom STILL projects the Trojans to win seven - SEVEN - Pac-12 games.  Seven!  A team that has hit 65 points all of twice this season - and has scored below 50 in HALF OF ITS GAMES - should be favored to beat at least Arizona State, UCLA, Colorado, Utah and Washington State at home and could beat the Sun Devils, Bruins, Cougars and/or either Oregon school on the road.  What an awful, awful excuse for a "power" conference.  The Lobos should just be thankful they survived such a miserable offensive performance with a W and now go to Oklahoma City next Saturday to play an Oklahoma State Cowboys team that lost a tough one to Pitt in the MSG game nobody cared about today.  They could really use the victory - Missouri State is a far less sexy "marquee win" (particularly when the Pokes won at SWOMO this week) than OK State would be, but a home shot at Saint Louis on New Year's Eve might be the real catch for the resume of Steve Alford and his boys.

-Quietly, Seton Hall is putting together a nice season - and a decent resume for NCAA tournament consideration.  The Pirates handled Wake Forest to get to 8-1 and while the Demon Deacons are no marquee win, it still means something to say you handled an ACC team with relative ease and it now goes in to the pile with Auburn, St. Joseph's and VCU - the latter two coming in the Charleston Classic, in which the Pirates lost in the title game to a good Northwestern team by 7 in a respectable effort.  Herb Pope is an absolute monster down low and with no Bobby Gonzalez and no (known) internal problems, this might finally be the year the Pirates make the NCAA tournament.  Particularly considering that they have a real shot at finishing in the top half of the Big East.  I grant you that Syracuse, UConn, Louisville, Marquette, Pitt and Georgetown are better than Kevin Willard's boys.  But who else in that league are you clearly taking over the Pirates right now?  No matter the pecking order, the league probably won't top out at only six bids.  That means the Pirates marquee win chance at Dayton on December 21 is important - and why their Big East opener at Syracuse exactly one week later is even more important.

-Giving up 56 points in the second half is probably an act that shouldn't be repeated but Wichita State continues to cruise along, handling Utah State to win its fifth in a row.  The Shockers went a disappointing 1-2 in the Puerto Rico tipoff, losing tight games to Alabama and Temple, but they've made up for it in the past week by throttling then-unbeaten-and-# 18 UNLV last Sunday before winning by 10 at C-USA bubble hopeful Tulsa on Wednesday before today's win over an NCAA tournament regular who's admittedly struggled mightily to start 2011-2012.  Round 1 of a possible two round Missouri Valley title fight comes on New Year's Eve when Doug McDermott and Creighton come to Charles Koch Arena - but Northern Iowa should have a say as well.  Nevertheless, Gregg Marshall's boys look like an NCAA tournament team and today's victory was a building block in the resume of one.

-And in the final noteworthy game of the day, I successfully called (I wish I had a betting slip to hyperlink to!) Michigan State winning at Gonzaga.  I like Gonzaga and I really like the inside-out combination of Robert Sacre and Kevin Pangos/David Stockton.  But I don't like how Gonzaga has underachieved massively this season, losing to Illinois, struggling against inferior in-state programs like Washington State and Eastern Washington and even having their problems taking over 30 minutes to put away a mediocre Notre Dame.  Though McCarthy Athletic Center may bear the nickname and has earned the reputation, it's not what it used to be - it's not "The Kennel" anymore.  At least not for a team that has Draymond Green scoring 34 for it in a magical 11/13 performance from the floor that included hitting 4 of 5 threes and 8 out of 9 free throws for good measure.  It also helps when that team can hold the opponent to 43% shooting (19/44) including just 40% (12/30) on twos.  Gonzaga actually out-rebounded Michigan State - always an accomplishment - 27-20 and shot 50% from three (7/14) but it wasn't enough to avoid its seventh loss ever at the new building.  I'm still unsure as to why the Spartans (a) weren't ranked to begin the season and (b) still aren't ranked, seeing as how they haven't lost since opening with surprisingly-competitive losses against UNC on an aircraft carrier and Duke at MSG for Coach K's record breaking win.  I expect that to change on Monday afternoon.

Cover to Cover Saturday: 12/11 Part II - No Sullinger, Lots Of Problems

-Now I'm no doctor - my competitive sports record consists of intramural flag football and random pickup basketball games - and my worst ever injury was a sprained collarbone that I had to wear a sling for a few weeks for back in like middle school...but how does one dish out 13 assists with a torn meniscus and a sprained MCL?  Isn't that what Chris Paul had?  Not going to question the toughness of Paul - or that guy who's injury was perhaps a bigger factor in today's result - but big ups to the much-maligned Tyshawn Taylor for delivering one of the biggest performances of his career in leading his team to victory over # 2 today but will now miss three weeks.  He still turned it over 7 times but a near 2-to-1 assist/turnover ratio is much better and a solid start towards backing up his word.  The Jayhawks - home underdogs for the first time in decades - played like the Kansas we're all so used to seeing, shooting a ridiculous 28/48 from the floor (58.3%) and 9/17 (52.9%) from three point range.  By contrast, with no Sullinger to open up the shooting lanes, Ohio State made just 5 of its 17 attempted treys in shooting just 38.7% from the field (24/62) on the game.  William Buford had 21 but they came on just 8 field goals in a whopping 23 attempts (with only one being a 3 - though he was 4/4 from the line.)  Aaron Craft was 4/11.  Luckily for the Buckeyes, they won't need Sullinger again until after Christmas when Northwestern comes calling to open up Big Ten play.  The Jayhawks, however, have a quick turnaround against Davidson in Kansas City on Monday before traveling to USC (oh, more on them later - just you wait) on Thursday.  Spliced from the recap:

“I can get on Ty because he will turn it over every now and then, but where would we be without him?” Self said. “We don’t win the game tonight if he doesn’t play. He definitely isn’t 100 percent.”

Taylor hurt his knee in practice earlier in the week and could have opted for surgery, but the Jayhawks’ medical staff decided he wouldn’t harm it any more by playing. They left it up to him to the senior to decide whether he could manage the pain, and Self didn’t ask how much he was experiencing.
“If you ask them if they’re hurting, then you give them an opportunity to give you an answer,” Self said, adding that Taylor hadn’t practiced all week until Friday.

-Another shootout at the Oakland Corral!  Michigan went for FIFTEEN threes and scored 59 in the second half to outgun the host Golden Grizzlies.  Oakland has played 10 games.  At least one team has scored 70 in each of them, each team has scored at least 70 in each of them except the season opener against Alabama and its elite (basketball) defense and a 30 point win over lethargic Grambling State (who could only get to 45 in that game - their season high.  Yes it's true) and today was the sixth straight game that the Grizzlies (and all of their opponents save UMKC) have both hit at least 80.  Reggie Hamilton, former Wolverine Laval Lucas-Perry and co. know how to run and know how to score while not knowing (or seemingly caring) much about defending.  But with today's spirited effort and a win over Tennessee already in their pocket, the Grizz have shown they can play against decent BCS competition (though as noted in part 1 the Vols' effort today was far from decent) and should still be the favorites to defend their Summit crown.  As for Michigan, it's always going to be about the backcourt with Trey Burke going for 20 and 9 today to make Wolverine fans forget even more about Darius Morris.  No need to forget Tim Hardaway Jr. - he and his 21 points (18 in the second half) are still leading what looks to be an NCAA tournament lock and should fight for a protected seed and positioning in the Big Ten. The Wolverines shouldn't lose again before Minnesota kicks off 2012 with a trip to Crisler Arena.

-Remember when Clemson NEVER lost out-of-conference?  Now the Tigers have dropped three in a row and four of six.  The bigger problem is that weren't even close at Arizona today after having the whole week to stew over last weekend's embarrassing home gaffe to South Carolina - making them unofficially the fourth best team in their own state.  As for the Cats, their defense on non-Patric Young Florida players was impressive in midweek and now they've sandwiched it by giving up just 47 today after conceding only 39 to Northern Arizona last weekend.  Sean Miller knows how to teach a lot of things related to basketball - defense being one of them.  As for the Tigers - a team I had just outside my early season bracket - they can forget about the NCAA's unless they win at least 10 games in a weak ACC.  That challenge begins January 7 when one of the few strong teams - Florida State - comes to town to kick off league play.  Before that, they clearly have a lot of issues to work out, mostly on offense.

-Missouri throttled somebody again.  Today's victim was Navy, who led 5-0 and then never again.  The last time these programs met before today was a 1/16 NCAA tournament matchup in 1994.  If the Midshipmen, 3-8 under new head coach Ed DeChellis (who shockingly left Penn State to take the job), can win the Patriot League tournament history might very well repeat itself this March.  In case you're wondering - the first round of the last year of the Border War is a ESPN College GameDay game on Saturday February 4 at 9 PM.  I'd pay a lot to buy that Zoo and be in it that night if I could.  It might teach us a thing or two about who's getting one of those four coveted # 1 seeds.

-Man, Villanova couldn't even beat Temple with the Owls missing starting center Michael Eric?  The Cats are now officially out of nonconference marquee win chances and might yet eat another OOC loss when they make another Big 5 road trip next weekend - this time at the St. Joseph's team talked about in part I.  Considering it took overtime to put away La Salle by 3 and Penn was only defeated by 8, the trip to the Fieldhouse next Saturday is all that's left to salvage a miserable Big 5 campaign for Jay Wright's boys.  Worse news: the Big East slate opens at West Virginia and then at Marquette so they could be looking at needing to win 10 of their final 16 - as opposed to losing 10 of their final 14 - to make the tournament that last year's team surely careened in to, particularly with this year's team being forced to carry that 76 Classic third place loss to Santa Clara on its resume.  As for the Owls, today's win was really important considering that ugly Bowling Green loss could haunt them if they're anywhere near the bubble (and as just stated, it could obviously end up being a head-to-head win over a bubble rival) and next weekend's trip to Texas before home games with dangerous Buffalo (a better MAC team than Bowling Green) and even-more-dangerous Duke just after the New Year may just mean that the Owls have work to do in the Atlantic 10 to earn their NCAA tournament spot.

Cover to Cover Saturday: 12/11 Part I - The Brawl

Unfortunately, a terrific day of basketball might be remembered more for the chaos at Cintas moreso than the brilliance in Bloomington but here's a multi-part recap of all of it for you anyway, beginning with part I.

-Creighton's a damn good basketball team...but the AP recap of St. Joseph's 80-71 upset tells you all you need to know about what Saturday's win meant on Hawk Hill.  I have a friend who transferred over from there after his freshman year and he's spoken of how loud it can get in a now-renovated Fieldhouse.  Before and after, it's a rowdy high school gym that knows and appreciates top notch, hard nosed basketball over the years.  There have been many lean years and it's still not like Jameer Nelson and Dalonte West are walking through that door but their old coach Phil Martelli is still there and has the Hawks playing pretty fantastic defense.  Doug McDermott lit them up for 26 and 10 rebounds like he lights everyone up but the rest of the 19th ranked Bluejays shot just 17/45 (37.7%) from the floor.  The nation's 33th ranked effective field goal percentage leaders (43.0 coming in to today - pay for KenPom if you haven't) who held Penn State to 47 get it done again.  The Atlantic 10 is deep this year.  These Hawks are another example of it.  At the very least, a win like this one gives them something to build on in terms of building an NCAA tournament profile besides the PSU win and a neutral site win over Georgia Tech before Thanksgiving.

-Washington showed a lot of heart in hanging with Duke at MSG (or Cameron North for a game like this one)...but what's with the Blue Devils letting inferior teams hang?  We thought Tennessee might not be as depleted as we thought after the Vols pushed the Dookies to the limit in Maui...but then Cuonzo Martin's boys turned around and lost today to a one-win Austin Peay that had never beaten them before.  The Huskies were a Jae Crowder trey away from beating Marquette in the same building earlier this week so comparing them to the Vols truly is apples and, er, oranges - but Lorenzo Romar's team is known for struggling away from home and the defense his team plays - particularly against the three pointer - is far from inspiring no matter where the games take place.  Of course, Duke was just 5/17 from long range today (thanks to Andre Dawkins tossing up a horrifying 2/9 - if you play in the Blue Devil backcourt and you're not named "Austin Rivers" or "Seth Curry," take a back seat please) and the Blue Devils still controlled the game throughout.  Of course, that's just a sign that they're probably going to fight tooth and nail with North Carolina for the ACC title through March.  Rivers in particular has the potential to be Duke's Tyler Hansbrough in 2006 or Harrison Barnes earlier this year - an impact freshman who takes the season over once conference play starts.

-Providence 72, Bryant 61?  Coupled with just a 7 point win against Boston College, the worst non-Utah BCS school in recent memory, in midweek, not the most convincing week at home for the Friars.  Easy Ed Cooley has the team scoring...but it might be a while until he has them winning consistently in the Big East.

-Okay, first I must note the irony in Tu Holloway claiming that a city he moved to before his senior year of high school is "his city."  Hell, I would think that the public school with 42,421 students captures more of whatever Cincinnati is than the country's sixth-oldest Jesuit university that enrolls less than 5,000 but that's neither here nor there in regards to what happened today (but maybe I'm fighting a war on religion, as Rick Perry might say - I only will link to the ad to hammer home the point that feelings related in any way to religion are white hot all around right now.  Still, please "dislike" that video)  It wasn't just about what happened today.  It was about what happened yesterday.  Look, trash talking in basketball is always going to happen - particularly (and often most heatedly) in a city rivalry and it's going to only intensify when it's almost always a close game between these schools, when somebody's always ranked as has been the case  and when the 09 double OT war that was one of the most intense regular season games in recent memory remains relatively fresh in mind.  But with last year being a blowout against an undermanned X and with the Musketeers coming in to this year's meeting flying high, already with impressive wins at Vanderbilt and Butler while the underachieving Bearcats have already lost to Presbyterian and Marshall as well as barely survived Georgia and Miami (Ohio), Sean Kilpatrick and Cincinnati's team failed.  They failed to show respect to a rival and a city neighbor that has made it clear it feels disrespected.  They failed to perceive how their actions and words might be perceived by that group.  And then they failed to take their beating - on the basketball court - like men and turned it in to a real fight.  There's never a good guy in a physical altercation and when suspensions get handed down, I'll try to post at least some brief thoughts on them.  But there is usually someone who instigated it and then someone who reciprocated it because there is a certain code that when someone hits you, you hit back.  This weekend - not just today but this weekend - Sean Kilpatrick and Cincinnati was the former and Xavier was the latter.  As for the game...the Bearcats sort of deserved what they got for saying that a third team All-American couldn't start for a team that, again, lost to Presby-freakin-terian and that sentence I think sort of sums things up here.  If Cincy doesn't learn how to score (particularly shoot the three even semi-competently), it might not even make it to the tournament but it obviously has bigger fish to fry in the meantime.  Perhaps luckily for them, the Big East isn't all that much deeper in terms of teams that look like tournament teams than X's own Atlantic 10.  The Musketeers continue to fly along though - although I'm sure Chris Mack will make a point of the slow start after he's done disciplining his team for its pathetic handling of the situation both during and after (it's never, ever, EVER okay to refer to yourself and especially teammates for whom you are speaking as "gangsters") - and despite its league's depth, there doesn't appear to be a real challenger to the throne.  I'll end this on a high note by copying and pasting from one of the hyperlinks what Mick Cronin did in the aftermath of the brawl.  Maybe he needs work on coaching his offense but it sure seems like he knows how to coach his kids.  Good for him:

Cronin was animated after the game in his disgust at what happened. As his players entered their locker room after the game, he said, he made all of them take off their uniform jerseys and physically removed several of the jerseys.

“They will not put it on again until they have a full understanding of where they go to school,” Cronin said, “and what the university stands for and how lucky they are to even be there, let alone have a scholarship because there’s a whole lot of kids that can’t pay for college.”

-Minnesota holds yet another team to under 60.  In fact, they held St. Peter's under 50.  Since Dayton erupted for 86 in the Old Spice Classic championship game, the Gophers have yet to let anyone get to that magic number and they've won all three of those games despite the loss of Trevor Mbakwe for the year in that loss.  Top 15 in the country coming in to today in both block and steal percentage, their Big Ten (B1G - but that championship game earned it its real name back) opener at Illinois right after Christmas should be a classic bubble war to kick off conference play in what might be the deepest league in the country.

-Who's the only other team this season to get to 80 against Tubby's boys?  Oliver Purnell's DePaul team, which hit the century mark today against full-throttle Chicago State and, led by Cleveland Melvin, flat out knows how to score, ranking 55th in points per game (76.6) after today's eruption.  The problem, of course, is that the opposing Cougars are winless and arguably the worst team in the country...and the Blue Demons only beat them by 7.  Better improve things before the New Year - the Big East opener is the day the ball drops at home against Syracuse.

-Butler lost again.  58-55 at Ball State.  The Horizon might be wide open but with this group and its offensive shortcomings (306th in effective field goal % before today), Brad Stevens would really be earning his salary if he can get them to win the league again this season.  Forget that, the next three could be even more painful: Purdue, at Gonzaga and at surprising Stanford.  Merry Christmas.

-Northern Iowa ran over Wisconsin-Milwaukee in an interesting Missouri Valley contender vs Horizon contender matchup.  Neither is the favorite to win their respective league but both should be in the hunt - particularly the Panthers, who have handled both their in-state big brothers Iowa and Iowa State (who are, probably in light of this, refusing to play them and fellow little-brother Drake anymore) and have just one loss on the year.  It came in a game at St. Mary's that tipped off at 1 AM central time as a part of ESPN's 24 hour tipoff marathon - probably not a true indicator of their abilities.

-Utah didn't lose by 20 today!  Next step: scoring more than 52 points in a game.  They haven't done that since Black Friday and they're 337th in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency coming in to today for good measure.  At least their next one's winnable.  For BYU, this was a disappointing offensive performance, if anything.  They only shot 33% from beyond the arc today.  But they made 9 of them and 27 points is enough to beat the Utes in a half these days, never mind a full 40 minutes.

-Ben Brust sure can shoot the rock, can't he?  They just seem to roll those random white kids who can shoot it off an assembly line in Madison.  But black or white, big or small, Bo Ryan knows how to find kids that hit the triple and, more importantly, play defense, rebound and all-around smart, responsible basketball.  That's why even when Jordan Taylor goes 0/10 from the floor, the Badgers can handle a team that beat then-top ranked UNC (more on the Heels and how that top ranking may have been a fraud in a later recap) with eleven-point ease.  The Rebels will rebound from this but they've learned that basketball outside the city of Las Vegas is much more difficult than inside the city limits where they were able to shock the Tar Heels and amass all but one game (the double-OT war at Santa Barbara) - particularly in the Midwest where a team I'll talk about later got them last Sunday.  This game and these teams deserve more words written about them on another day.

-Time to reveal my mancrush on Ron Hunter and Georgia State.  The Panthers started 0-3 under their new coach, formerly of the Summit powerhouse IUPUI, but won their seventh in a row today - with their last five by 20 or more.  Granted, none have come over a team in the KenPom top 200 but wins are wins, particularly for a school that hasn't been to the tournament since Lefty Driesell finished off his career there.  And despite its record, Rhode Island - who lost by just 11 this week at home against Virginia Tech - isn't THAT bad and has a lot of size and offensive rebounding to deal with (9th in the nation in offensive rebound %.)  Nevermind that, the Panthers outrebounded them 32-29 and 8-5 on the offensive glass.  Preseason CAA favorite Drexel, who has disappointed and slogged by equally disappointing Princeton today, pays a visit to Atlanta on January 2 to re-open conference play (the Panthers are 1-0, trashing cellar dellar William & Mary last weekend) and perhaps then we'll learn if Hunter's boys can contend in a down league.

-Oklahoma continues to impress under Lon Kruger.  Oral Roberts and Arkansas might not be Missouri and Kansas but the Sooners continue to pile up double digit victories and remain unblemished apart from the 76 Classic title game.  It was someone else again today as Tyler Neal scored a career-high 18 off the bench.  Kruger's Rebels teams beat you with offense, depth, guard play and toughness.  This Sooner unit has all of the above and we'll find out just how much of each they have when they head to the Zoo on January 3 to kick off Big 12 play against a Tiger team that should still be unbeaten if it beats Illinois like it should in the annual Braggin Rights game right before Christmas.