Some college basketball thoughts on the final day of 2014 before we turn over to a new year and after a particularly quiet past week of the college hoops schedule:
- One really wants to say Minnesota has not gotten enough credit for its 11-2 start to the season, but the schedule just hasn’t been tough enough to deserve it. Still, the Golden Gophers only have losses to Louisville in their season opener and at St. John’s, and their 11 wins are by an average margin of 23.1 points. No matter who your opposition, at some point that is impressive and you’d think it will transfer well when playing tougher teams. Of course, many might’ve said the same about Ohio State before the Buckeyes lost to Iowa at home in their conference opener.
- BYU has needed someone to help out Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth with the scoring load, especially with Haws hobbled by an injury in December, and Anson Winder has really picked up his play. The 6-foot-3 senior has scored 25, 17 and 22 in the Cougars’ last three games, and for the season is averaging 14.4 points per game. Winder will be needed to help Brigham Young make a big run through the West Coast Conference, because the Cougars didn’t pick up a lot of quality wins in non-conference play and already have lost to Gonzaga at home in their WCC opener.
- One of the things to watch when conference play comes around is how the elite freshmen handle the grind of more road games and more consistently tough opponents. More than a couple times in the past, top freshmen have cruised through non-conference play, only to quickly look human when conference play starts. One early example of that came with Ohio State, where star frosh D’Angelo Russell’s first conference game against Iowa was not a good one. While showing flashes of the smooth game that has made him one of the season’s best freshmen so far, Russell also was just 4-for-16 from the field, including 1 of 8 from behind the arc, finishing with 13 points.
- Dayton is responding well so far despite playing with no one taller than 6-6 after the dismissal of its center and backup center in mid-December. The Flyers are being more disruptive defensively, averaging eight steals per game over their last three games, including six in the first half of a 78-74 win over Mississippi on Tuesday. Offensively, Dayton is playing a little bit faster and is shooting a few more three-pointers, but most importantly, they are making more threes-UD has drilled 29 triples over its last three games and is shooting 47.5% from behind the arc in that time, well above its averaged of 4.7 makes and 27.1% before that. The Flyers are doing a nice job of swing it around the perimeter and also using touches inside to get it back out to three-point shooters.
- The Missouri Valley Conference is considerably improved this season…in some ways. Wichita State is not going to walk through this conference again, with Northern Iowa, Evansville, Illinois State and surprising Loyola (Ill.) forming a solid top five through non-conference play. Loyola in particular has been a great story, going 10-2 in non-conference play to already tie its win total from all of last year. Porter Moser deserves a lot of credit for the job he has done already in transitioning the Ramblers from the Horizon League to the MVC, a conference he is very familiar with from playing at Creighton and coaching previously at Illinois State. At the same time, the bottom of the conference as a whole may be weaker than last year. Bradley, Drake Indiana State, Missouri State and Southern Illinois, with Drake and Indiana State in particular having very rough years. Will be interesting to see if the top half of the league can separate, or if the current bottom five cannibalizes them, dealing serious blows to some teams’ postseason hopes.
- One of the best stories of the first half of the season has been happening at Maryland-Eastern Shore. The Hawks are 8-8 overall and have won three straight, including road wins at Atlantic 10 members Duquesne and St. Bonaventure. That record may not sound incredibly impressive, but the Hawks have played a typical Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference non-league schedule with just four of their first 16 games at home. UMES got off to a 1-6 start, but first-year coach Bobby Collins-formerly at Hampton and NCAA Division II Winstom-Salem State-is breathing life into a program that has traditionally been one of the worst in all of NCAA Division I. Maryland-Eastern Shore has lost at least 21 games each of the past 12 years, has not had a winning season since 1993-94, and has exactly one winning record in 33 years as a Division I member.
- Mercer has a very new look this year after losing all five starters from last year’s team that toppled Duke in the NCAA Tournament. The Bears are still a thorn in bigger name opponents’ sides this year, though, if not necessarily beating those teams. Mercer just finished a three-game stretch against the SEC in which it trailed Tennessee by four late in the second half before falling by ten, went to three overtimes before falling at Georgia, and jumped out to an early 19-8 lead at Texas A&M before fading. Ike Nwamu has raised his scoring from 8.3 to 17.4 points per game, and the Bears should be a tough out in their first year in a Southern Conference that has Wofford as a favorite but a number of teams including East Tennessee State and Tennessee-Chattanooga as challengers.