Some college basketball thoughts as we approach the middle of January, conference play is in full session and the chase for NCAA Tournament berths starts to pick up steam:
- VCU is not a perfect team-it’s still not great in the half court offensively-so maybe this will matter in the NCAA Tournament or maybe it won’t, but there are few teams that are more battle-tested so far this year. The Rams’ most recent win at Rhode Island adds to a stable of quality conquests already. VCU had already won at Cincinnati and Illinois State and defeated Tennessee and Oregon at neutral sites. Eight of its 17 games have been at road/neutral sites, and sure enough, it’s next two are as well (tricky-but-winnable ones at Duquesne and Saint Louis). Few teams can also say they’ve played 10 of their 17 games so far against the RPI top 100. With George Washington struggling for offensive consistency and Dayton playing well but still low on depth, the Rams are still the clear favorites in the Atlantic 10.
- Syracuse is quietly lurking this year, something that hasn’t been able to be genuinely said in a number of years. The Orange (we still prefer Orangemen) are still having a solid season (13-4, 4-0 in ACC, 45 RPI), have won seven straight (not all in pretty fashion) and their zone is still keying terrific defense. Syracuse may soon provide a test case, though, for just how far a starting five can carry a team. Losing Chris McCullough hurt because of his production (more than nine points and nearly seven rebounds per game) but also because this already was not a deep team. Trevor Cooney carried the Cuse (28 points) in their win Sunday night against Florida State, and Rakeem Christmas is a brute in the post who carries a lot of weight for this team offensively and defensively (as shown by his 35 points in the Orange’s OT win over Wake Forest on Tuesday). Syracuse should still be an NCAA Tournament team (and if it’s contending for the ACC title at the end of February then Boeheim should be the league’s coach of the year), but if Cooney’s shooting goes cold again or Christmas gets in foul trouble, there is little margin for error for this team.
- Old Dominion slipped out of the rankings this week after a loss at Western Kentucky, but the Monarchs aren’t going too far away anytime soon. Watching them handle UNC Charlotte on the road a week and a half ago, this team is for real. Jeff Jones’ team plays good defense, rebounds well, and doesn’t turn it over. While not necessarily explosive offensively, Trey Freeman and Aaron Bacote give ODU two guards who can score (though Bacote’s numbers have been down, other than a 31-point explosion against VCU), and the Monarchs have good size and athleticism up front. Old Dominion also has good depth and versatility, going 10 deep with players who can fill a variety of roles. Wins over VCU and LSU are not flukes, this is a quality team.
- Murray State got off to a poor start but is currently on a tear. The Racers (13-4, 3-0 in the Ohio Valley) have won 11 in a row-six of them away from home-and by an average of nearly 20 points per game. This is coming from a team that came in with lofty expectations but started off 2-4 with a blowout loss at Xavier and an embarrassing 35-point loss to Valparaiso in Nashville in which the Crusaders outscored Murray 50-21 in the second half. Much was expected of Murray State after returning four starters from last year’s high-octane, skilled offensive team that won the OVC West Division title and the CollegeInsider.com Tournament championship, but the Racers couldn’t outshoot their defense and got pounded on the glass in their early losses, allowing opponents to shoot at least 45% and getting out-boarded in all four games. The last straw was Valparaiso knocking down 59.6% of its shots on Nov. 29, but since then Murray has gradually tightened the screws.
Opponents are shooting just 35.7% over the last seven games, and the Racers have out-rebounded eight of 11 opponents in their win streak. Meanwhile, this team has become even more of an offensive juggernaut, shooting at least 50% in nine of its last 10 games (54.6% total over its streak). Dynamite sophomore guard Cameron Payne (18.4 points per game, 47.3% from the field) has become more efficient shooting, backcourt mate Jeffery Moss has picked up his scoring (16.7 points over last six games) and forward Jarvis Williams is having an OVC MVP-level season. Some of the wins in that streak are over weaker opponents, but wins over Western Kentucky, Illinois State and Evansville continue to look better as the season goes on. This is a dangerous team.
- Suddenly, the bottom of the Pac-12 has gone from a weakness to a strength. Oregon State and Washington State both are 2-1 in the conference with very notable wins over current or former top 25 teams (OSU over Arizona, Wazzu at California and Washington). It’s starting to get around that Wayne Tinkle is doing a terrific job at Oregon State, and the end of the Beavers’ current 25-year NCAA Tournament drought should be just around the corner in the next couple years. Something about former Montana coaches-add Tinkle to the long tree that includes Jud Heathcote, Jim Brandenburg, Mike Montgomery, Blaine Taylor, and Larry Krystkowiak as guys who went on from Missoula to have tremendous success elsewhere. Ernie Kent also is turning around Washington State quicker than expected. The Cougars looked bad early-losses to UTEP and Idaho and blowout losses to TCU and UC Santa Barbara-but started to show life when they defeated a good UC Davis team on Dec. 28. While these teams’ improvement-as well as that of USC-is good for the Pac-12’s overall strength, it may be bad for the league’s hopes of more NCAA Tournament bids. With Washington and Cal both stumbling of late and UCLA and Colorado down, this could be as low as a two- or three-bid league in March.
- All things considered, Boise State’s 11-6 overall record is not too bad. Leon Rice’s team has been ravaged by injuries this year, the most notable being to Anthony Drmic, a career 1,500-point scorer who made it just seven games before being shut down. A total of 11 different players have started at least one game, and just two have played in every game. Four of Boise’s losses have come by a combined 16 points (against Colorado State, N.C. State, Loyola Chicago and Utah State), yet it still has been able to win at St. Mary’s and most recently defeat UNLV in overtime for its first Mountain West win. Derrick Marks has been spectacular at times (three 30-point games, plus 28 in the win over UNLV) and James Webb has become a rebounding machine, giving this team a slightly different identity. The Broncos were a four-guard team the past couple years and are still among the NCAA top 50 in three-point percentage and makes, but this year’s team is playing two forwards and is playing bigger, out-rebounding seven of its last 10 opponents, including the Runnin’ Rebels by nine.
- Hoopville’s Phil Kasiecki deservingly took note of Stew Morrill’s announced retirement from Utah State a couple days ago, and also wanted to mention it here. What Morrill has done at Utah State has been one of the most underrated stories in the sport over the past 15 years. Under Morrill, this became one of the top programs in the West with a real identity. Many of Morrill’s teams seemed to look the same-loaded with junior college transfers and Mormon mission returnees and always among the top shooting teams in the country-but that’s a good thing when you’re averaging 24 wins a year. (This year’s team is an exception; an exceptionally young squad is shooting 42.6% and currently sits at 9-7, with all seven of its losses by 10 points or less, two in overtime.) His teams have always been fun to watch offensively with their constant movement and execution on set plays.
The Aggies also developed one of the best home court atmospheres anywhere, one that showed well on TV and made the school to continue succeeding as it moved up the conference ladder from the Big West to the WAC and eventually the Mountain West. Utah State didn’t have quite enough NCAA Tournament success to rise to a Gonzaga or Butler level-just one NCAA tourney win-and some of Morrill’s teams are remembered for being among the NCAA tourney selection committee’s bigger screw jobs, something he had no trouble being outspoken about. College basketball is losing an original, and whoever takes over at USU will be coming into a good situation. Sophomore Jalen Moore is on the verge of becoming a star (15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds per game) and this year’s team has just one senior.
- Really starting to think college basketball needs some kind of challenge system when it comes to going to instant replay for adjustments to the game clock. Too many games are still getting stalled out in the final minutes for officials to put an extra two-tenths of a second on the clock. Unless we’re inside the final second, that shouldn’t happen. We don’t need more time spent on officials looking at replays, we need less. The only time clock adjustments should be happening is if it’s a real clock malfunction and several seconds bleed away, not just to parse a couple tenths one way or another. Slight human error with clock-keeping happens. People need to deal with it.
- Jim Harrick used to say “Things are mighty fine at the ‘Dine,”, and slowly, Pepperdine is emerging again as a challenger in the WCC. The Waves got a really good win at BYU last week on the strength of a hot start offensively and a terrific defensive effort. Sometimes it seems like every college basketball team that doesn’t play at a breakneck pace is called a good defensive team, but in Pepperdine’s case it’s true. The Waves do an outstanding job of challenging everything. It especially shows in its three-point defense, where Marty Wilson’s team leads the nation, allowing just 23.7% shooting from behind the arc. The offense is still coming along-currently it is a heavy dose of Stacy Davis, an Alan Williams-like load who is undersized but skilled, and led by a solid point guard’s point guard in Jeremy Major. Pepperdine is currently 11-5 overall and 4-1 in the WCC with only a loss to St. Mary’s. Other than a borderline-inexplicable loss at home to IUPUI, the Waves’ losses have been reasonable-St. Mary’s, at Iowa by 11, at Arizona State by seven, plus by two at Madison Square Garden to Richmond. A big chance to make more noise comes tomorrow night when Pepperdine hosts Gonzaga in Malibu.
- One of the best-kept secrets in the country is the rebounding prowess of Quinnipiac. The Bobcats have led Division I in rebound margin the last two years and are doing it again this year, keeping some heady company. (The five schools following them currently? Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Baylor and Gonzaga.) Quinnipiac has also led the nation in offensive rebounding each of the last four years and currently ranks third this year (behind frenetic West Virginia and the ultra-athletic front line of North Carolina). Coach Tom Moore seems to breed rebounders, including Ousmane Drame, who averages 10.3 boards as well as 13.8 points, plus high-scoring Zaid Hearst, who averages 19.5 points and 6.6 rebounds. Despite its board-bouncers, the Bobcats got off to a tough 0-4 start in the Metro Atlantic with three losses by single digits, and in all six of its losses have come by a combined 27 points. A measure of this team’s real quality, though, is that it really surprised no one when QU won at current MAAC leader Monmouth 68-64 on Friday (despite the Hawks battling to a 35-35 standstill on the glass). Quinnipiac also defeated Marist on Sunday to get back on track at 8-7 overall and 2-4 in the MAAC.