On Christmas Eve, we share some weekly thoughts from following the nation in college basketball:
- West Virginia’s turnaround this year has been a joy to watch and, at the risk of falling into the type of coach worship you hear so often on TV, also is a tribute to just how good a coach Bob Huggins is. After a couple mediocre seasons, this year’s Mountaineers look distinctly more like Huggins’ former Cincinnati teams with their running, pressing, scrambling and hustling all over the floor. Huggins has drawn on his vast experience in getting this team to play a different way than it has the past couple years, and the result has been an 11-1 record and a number of impressive wins, the most recent being a dismantling of a darn good Wofford team that just beat North Carolina State a week earlier. WVU entered Monday leading the nation in turnover margin, steals and offensive rebounds-categories all partially or completely related to hustle and playing hard. The Mountaineers do that all the time.
- The author of the season’s most explosive scoring game has an interesting backstory. Delaware State senior guard Amere May scored 48 points last week in the Hornets’ 72-64 win over St. Francis (N.Y.). Like a number of NCAA Division I players, he is a transfer, but unlike many, he has transferred from and now back to his current school. May played for Delaware State for two years, averaging 5.9 points over two seasons before transferring to NCAA Division II St. Augustine (N.C.) last year, where he averaged 19.3 points per game and was first team all-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. He returned to DelState after a coaching change and is finishing up his degree there while also being closer to his 1-year old son. (The Delaware State News had a terrific story in October about May’s return to the Dover school). This year he is averaging 19.1 points per game and is part of an improving Hornets team that has knocked off Penn, Wake Forest and state rival Delaware as part of a 5-7 start while playing at home just twice in its first 12 games.
- Having watched Purdue several times this year, the Boilermakers are a team with a lot of potential, and from here their 8-5 record is actually something of a disappointment. Purdue has some nice wins over BYU and N.C. State, but also disappointing losses now to North Florida and Gardner-Webb at home and a blowout loss to Notre Dame. Unlike the past few years when there seemed to not be much hope for the Boilers, there is some quality talent in West Lafayette now. Isaac Haas and Vince Edwards have been nice freshmen, sophomore Kendall Stephens leads the team in scoring and last-second transfer Jon Octeus has steadied the backcourt. The Boilermakers have been inconsistent, though, and chalk this one up to growing pains. It’s a young team, and young teams don’t always go out immediately looking like Kentucky.
- DePaul is improved, but the Blue Demons have also been awful on defense at times. Their 31-point loss at Oregon State was nothing less than embarrassing, and the first game against Colorado in the Diamond Head Classic on Monday turned into a layup drill in the second half, with the Buffaloes getting way, way too many easy baskets. Sure enough, there was more of the same in the consolation bracket Tuesday when Ohio U. ran away for a 99-78 win while shooting 59.4%. DePaul is capable of causing some problems in the Big East this year, and when you press as aggressively as the Blue Demons do, you’re going to give up some easy baskets. But it’s happening just far too regularly of late.
- Speaking of Colorado, really interested to see what the Buffaloes do in the Pac-12. Colorado has a fair share of talent and can be really good when it plays well, but the team has noted issues with consistency (CU has scored as many as 93 points in a game and as few as 33, with a number of markings on both sides of that spectrum). The inconsistency is throughout the lineup, too-there’s not necessarily a player or players who are most guilty, as even team leaders Askia Booker and Josh Scott have been up and down. This is a team that could raise its play when it gets into the consistency of a conference schedule and make the NCAA Tournament…or could drop into the second division in its conference.
- Have read a few places where people are making a relative stink over TCU being ranked 25th despite playing a weak schedule. Don’t understand what the big deal is. The Frogs have beaten everyone they’ve played, they have a few decent wins (at Mississippi, Mississippi State, Radford) and they’re beating opponents by an average of 22 points per game. They also haven’t lost a single game to a team they shouldn’t. How many teams outside the top 25 can one say that about right now? It’s the final spot in the poll, at this point absolutely nothing wrong with it going to a team that is 12-0, no matter what the schedule.
- Far out of sight from most of the college basketball world, Hawaii interim coach Benjy Taylor is doing a really nice job. The Rainbow Warriors lost their coach (Gib Arnold), one of their assistant coaches and their best player (Isaac Fotu) just before the start of the season, yet still are 9-4 now with wins over Pittsburgh and Nebraska after defeating the Cornhuskers in the quarterfinals of the Diamond Head Classic, and most recently a tough overtime loss to Wichita State in that tourney’s semifinals. The Big West already was going to be a terrific race this year with UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State all strong and UC Davis looking very good early, but add the Rainbow Warriors as another team that should contend.
- Louisiana Tech has been outrebounded in every single game it has played this year-all 12 games it has played. If looking for reasons why the Bulldogs have a few surprising losses and have missed out on their high-profile chances at Syracuse and N.C. State, you can start right there.
- Cleveland State has had a rough season so far. It really started in the summer, for CSU was expected to return all five starters this year until top player Bryn Forbes decided mid-summer to “transfer closer to home,” which was magically the same time that Michigan State had a need for a skilled two-guard. The Vikings then lost spark plug point guard Charlie Lee to suspension for six games to start the season, and it’s been tough to find any continuity since. A 6-7 mark was hardly the expectation for this team, and while there’s still time to turn it around, at this point it’s going to be tough to match last year when it won 21 games and finished second in the Horizon League.
- New Mexico State has dealt with about as much bad luck with injuries as anyone this year. Star guard Daniel Mullings, top post threat Tshilidzi Nephawe and 7-foot-3 Tanveer Bhullar all have missed much or-in Bhullar’s case-all of the season due to injuries. Despite the personnel losses, the Aggies have continued to play hard, continue to plug in able bodies and have been competitive in about every game they have played, but have been unable to get over the hump in a number of close games. NMSU will be fine in the Western Athletic Conference, but will likely be working from a very low seed if it can qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
- Another team that has had some awful injury luck has been UC Irvine. The Anteaters got off to a nice start to the season with narrow misses at Arizona (leading until late in the second half and hanging close before the Wildcats piled up points at the foul line in the final minute) and St. Mary’s, but then lost 7-foot-6 mammoth center Mamadou Ndiaye to a foot injury. The big man has missed the last six games, and UCI did not respond well at first, losing three of four, including disappointing losses to Fresno State, Texas-Arlington and Morgan State. Adding to the team’s troubles was top guard Luke Nelson also missing the Morgan State game due to sickness. Irvine did rebound for two narrow-but-satisfying wins in the Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic, and given everything it has gone through, the Anteaters’ win over Wisconsin-Green Bay was an especially nice win, and maybe the type to convince this team that it can play well even with Ndiaye out and hold the fort until he returns.
- St. Mary’s is every bit as talented as it has been in recent years, but the Gaels need to get tougher. Brad Waldow is having a terrific season, one worthy of national consideration. His team had a pair of ugly losses last week, though, first falling to Northern Arizona at home after allowing the Lumberjacks back into it late and then turning it over under its own basket down the stretch, and then losing at St. John’s after building a 17-point lead. St. Mary’s has posted some quality wins (UC Irvine, at Creighton) that show it is capable of being an NCAA Tournament team again, but it will need to become more consistent.
Merry Christmas to all!