- Some college basketball thoughts from the first week of the new year:
Seton Hall’s resurgence has been one of the best stories of the first half of the season, and its win at Villanova was an example of a team finding a way when best-laid plans fall apart. Whatever game plan coach Kevin Willard came in with fell apart when the Pirates got in heavy foul trouble in the first half, forcing him to go deep into the bench as the Wildcats repeatedly pounded the ball inside. Haralds Karlis, Chier Ajou and Ismael Sanogo played a combined 85 seconds in SHU’s prior game against St. John’s, but all three came in during the first half and helped hold the fort. Karlis hit a three-pointer and the trio combined for four rebounds as the Pirates got to halftime with a 31-27 lead despite having seven players with two fouls each.
While guard Sterling Gibbs is rightly getting noticed for stepping up his play in the absence of Isaiah Whitehead, freshman Khadeen Carrington also has picked it up several notches in recent weeks. Carrington had 11 against St. John’s and a career-high 17 in the win over Villanova. The 6-foot-3 lefty is fearless and constantly on the attack-a combined 18 free throws in the Pirates’ two wins last week-which makes him a whole lot of fun to watch.
- Having watched a couple SMU games this year now, it’s frustrating to watch how much the Mustangs struggle to score sometimes. SMU had a golden chance to win at Cincinnati and led at halftime but was slow and stagnant and generated next to nothing in the second half until the final minutes when trying to rally. Cincinnati is an outstanding defensive team, but this was a game there for the taking. The Mustangs didn’t get much from Markus Kennedy again (7 points, and averaging just 4.8 points since regaining eligibility). Xavier transfer Justin Martin also hasn’t been much of a scoring threat (5.7 points per game after 11.7 last year with the Musketeers) and in fact played just three minutes against the Bearcats. Turnovers also have been a problem (nearly 15 per game, including 17 at Cincy). SMU is going to win with its frontline-by-committee anyway-the Mustangs ranks in the top 30 nationally in rebound margin, and conversely are tied for 320th of 345 D-I teams in the NCAA statistics in three-pointers per game-and had won eight straight prior (including an 83-point outing in a blowout of South Florida just three days earlier), but there seems to be more there than showed in this one. Larry Brown is known to enjoy teaching, so will be interesting to see what progress this team makes the rest of the season.
- Vanderbilt is showing signs of life this year. The Commodores are 11-3 after a 64-52 win over Auburn on Tuesday, their fourth straight win. Sophomore center Damian Jones is quickly becoming one of the top players in the SEC and is averaging 16.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and just under two blocks a game. Vandy also has received a surprise lift from freshman guard Riley LaChance, who has started all 14 games is averaging 13.1 points has emerged as a three-point shooter. LaChance wasn’t a highly hyped recruit but is the team’s top perimeter threat and had back-to-back 26-point games in December in wins over Purdue and Western Carolina. He also should provide Commodore fans another nostalgia trip (as if having Luke Kornet, son of former Vandy forward Frank Kornet, isn’t enough). It’s not the first time Vanderbilt has had an unheralded guard from Wisconsin become a key player, as LaChance seems to be following in the footsteps of Frank Seckar, who came to Nashville as a fairly unknown recruit but went on to score more than 1,200 points in his career as a Commodore from 1992-96.
- Hate to be harsh, but didn’t have much sorrow for Miami after it lost 89-80 in double overtime to Virginia. The Hurricanes did a fantastic job to get back in the game, but completely blew a chance to win it at the end of the first overtime, dribbling the clock down to literally one second before making any kind of attempt to get into an offense. It’s quite possible there was confusion of some sort, but it shouldn’t matter. The clock is right above the backboards now, when a clock gets down below five seconds and nothing happening, it’s time to make something happen. At that point even a 30-footer from straight on would’ve been a better option than basically just taking a pass on a final shot attempt. It gets maddening watching teams repeatedly botch last shot opportunities so badly.
- The American Athletic Conference was bound to take a drop this year with Louisville completing its apprenticeship, but the league is not down quite as much as some have tried to portray it. We’re expecting Cincinnati, Connecticut and probably Temple to make the NCAA Tournament and potentially be factors there, with SMU and perhaps improving Tulsa also in the mix as well. The league also has received a boost from…Tulane? What in the name of Hot Rod Williams, Perry Clark and The Posse? Yes, the Green Wave are 11-3 and now 2-0 in the AAC after winning at Memphis on Saturday, their first win over the Tigers since 2000. The win has to go as the biggest in Ed Conroy’s five years leading the program, and while the Tigers are obviously down, they had been showing signs of life with five straight wins coming in. Now the Wave can ride the wave of momentum into a big home game against Temple Wednesday night that should be fun.
- If the first couple nights of league play are any indication, the Sun Belt is going to be as competitive as any league in the country this year. Seven of the first 15 Sun Belt games have been decided by four points or less, including five by a single possession. Three games have gone to overtime, and 10 of the league’s 11 teams have at least one conference loss already. The only one that doesn’t is Louisiana-Lafayette, which already has won on the road twice in conference and looks like it’s ready to once again battle it out with Georgia State for the title. Just one team is without a loss as well-Arkansas-Little Rock, which lost in overtime to UL-Lafayette and by three to South Alabama.
- Siena was picked to be a top contender in the Metro Atlantic this year and a program on the rise in general after winning the CBI tourney last year. The Saints may still be a factor by the end in the MAAC, but their overall growth has been stunted by injuries in the frontcourt. Junior forward Brett Bisping was the CBI MVP last year but broke his toe in Siena’s sixth game against Quinnipiac, had to have surgery and is out until February. Six-foot-9 senior center Imoh Silas never got that far this year, tearing his ACL in practice before the season, and 6-7 forward Lavon Long also missed three games before returning for the Saints’ 68-67 win at Fairfield last week. Combine that with a regionally based schedule that has been tougher than may have been expected (Vermont and Cornell in particular have been surprises) and its not surprising that Siena is currently 5-8 overall and 2-2 early in the MAAC season.
- Stephen F. Austin is at it again. The Lumberjacks have won 11 straight games to improve to 12-3 on the season and are the clear favorites in the Southland Conference. SFA opened the year replacing three starters from last year’s squad that won 29 straight games and beat VCU in the NCAA Tournament, and that plus a brutal three-game stretch (Northern Iowa at home, Xavier and Baylor away, all within seven days) contributed to a 1-3 start. Senior Jacob Parker and Thomas Walkup were the leaders coming in, and they’ve been outstanding again (the duo lead the Jacks in scoring and rebounding, and both had double-doubles in the team’s 81-66 win over SE Louisiana on Monday). The supporting cast has started to develop around them, though. Six different players have led the team in scoring over the last seven games, and coach Brad Underwood is regularly playing 11 players in the team’s constant-motion offense and sticky denial defense. SFA picked up good wins in December, winning at Memphis and blowing out Long Beach State at home. This year’s team is not as consistently dominant as last year’s yet, but it wouldn’t be a stunner at all if it reaches March again with five losses or less.
- You may want to toss Missouri State into the mix of teams contending for at least a top-4 finish in the Missouri Valley. The Bears did something Wichita State couldn’t do last week: dominate Drake. MSU hammered the Bulldogs at home 62-37 on Saturday, just a couple days after the Shockers had to claw for a 66-58 win on the road at Drake. Coach Paul Lusk has switched to a bigger lineup and it has paid off with a three-game winning streak in which the Bears are allowing just 44 points per game. Missouri State also has the most dynamic scorer in the MVC in Marcus Marshall, who is averaging just under 21 points per game (shooting 49.1% from the field and 50.6% from three-point range, remarkable percentages for a 6-3 guard). The Bears had some stumbles in non-conference play and Oral Roberts, Southern Illinois and Drake aren’t automatic indicators of a championship team, but certainly it is a team worth watching in the Valley.
- Side note: there’s not many TV broadcast pairings more fun to listen to than Mitch Holthus and Mark Adams when they call Missouri Valley games. Adams’ Twitter handle says it all: @EnthusiAdams. These two are a hoot, never afraid to make a bold proclamation, never afraid to display how much they enjoy covering the MVC, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
- Something about Idaho being back in the Big Sky Conference just feels right. For one, Idaho, Idaho State, Montana andMontana State all together in a conference, plus schools like Northern Colorado and Weber State in Utah, is about as “Big Sky” as you can get. For another, the last time Idaho made any kind of national noise was back when it was in the Big Sky. After time in the Big West and WAC, the Vandals returned to the league this year after an 18-year absence. Idaho is 2-0 in its Big Sky return after home wins over Idaho State and Weber State last week. The Vandals haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since back-to-back trips in 1989 and 1990 and haven’t won 20 games since Larry Eustachy led the program to 24 wins in 1992-93. The time since has included just six winning seasons in 21 years. Don Verlin (whose twin brother Ron is the coach at Pacific) has three of those winning records, making him easily the most successful of the six coaches who have followed Eustachy, but it’s good seeing him have a chance now in a much more natural fit for a conference.