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 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'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 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

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