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Scanning the Nation Notebook – January 21, 2015

January 21, 2015 Columns No Comments

Some college basketball thoughts as we slide into the dregs of the season for many teams, where conference play has become routine but we’re still a couple weeks from getting serious about bubble talk and being able to see the finish line of the postseason:

We’re either nearing or past the quarter pole in almost all conference races now. As such, it’s a good time to take note of some of the surprises from the first part of the conference season. (Note: if a league is not mentioned, then there aren’t any notable surprises…yet):


  • Your leader at midseason in the AAC is not Connecticut, not Cincinnati, not Memphis, not SMU, but Tulsa at 5-0. More on the Golden Hurricane below…
  • In the America East, Vermont was supposed to be rebuilding this year. Reloading is more like it. The Catamounts are tied with Albany for the top spot at 5-0…
  • How awkward is it seeing Louisville at seventh place (with a 3-2 record) in the ACC?
  • Coming off a mediocre season by its standards in its last year in the Southern Conference, Davidson (4-2 in league) has been a big surprise its debut in the Atlantic 10
  • DePaul is 4-2 and tied for second in the Big East. St. John’s is 1-4 and alone in ninth. Wow…
  • Radford returned all five starters from last year’s CBI team that defeated Oregon State, but the Highlanders are currently tied for seventh in the Big South (2-3)…
  • Without a doubt, Maryland is the biggest surprise in the league (tied with Wisconsin for the Big Ten lead at 5-1) and one of the biggest nationally…
  • We thought UC Davis would be better. We didn’t expect the Aggies to be leading a tough Big West at 4-0 with a 14-3 overall record…
  • UNC Wilmington has been a pleasant surprise all year and is currently tied for third at 4-2 in CAA play…
  • Old Dominion is one of the most surprising teams in the country, Western Kentucky is tied with Louisiana Tech for the Conference USA lead (5-0), but the big stunner right now is UAB is tied for second at 4-1 after a bad non-conference performance…
  • With Iona, Manhattan and Siena among the MAAC favorites coming into the season, virtually no one would’ve projected Monmouth at 6-1 leading the league in late January…
  • Indiana State struggled mightily in non-conference play, but the Sycamores started 4-0 in the MVC and still sit third at 4-1…
  • See above regarding Fresno State, which was bad in non-conference play but is now tied for third in the Mountain West at 4-2…
  • See above regarding Bryant, 3-7 out of conference but 5-1 in the Northeast to tie for first right now…
  • Eastern Illinois is 6-0 in the OVC West Division, even leading Murray State right now. More on the Panthers below, too…
  • Oregon State and Washington State are tied for fourth in the Pac-12, one game behind the leaders at 3-2. Enough said…
  • Colgate was picked eighth in the Patriot League preseason poll and that looked about right after a 3-10 non-conference mark, but the Raiders are currently 5-0 and 1 1/2 games ahead of their nearest competitor…
  • Did anyone think Mercer would disappear after losing five starters from last year’s team that beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament? They shouldn’t have. The Bears are 6-1 and atop the Southern Conference in their first year as a member…
  • Lamar won four games all of last year. The Cardinals have already won four of six Southland Conference games (good for fourth place) and are 10-8 overall, one of the best turnarounds in the country…
  • IUPUI and South Dakota are both tied for fourth at 3-2, while Denver is sixth (2-3), IPFW eighth (1-4) and Nebraska-Omaha ninth (1-5) in the Summit
  • The Sun Belt has been full of eye-opening results, but Louisiana-Monroe leading the league at 6-1, 1 1/2 games ahead of its nearest competitor, easily rises to the top in more ways than one.

More hoop notes…

Mentioned Tulsa’s struggles a few weeks back. The Golden Hurricane is no longer struggling. In fact, this could soon be a borderline top 25 team. Tulsa is leading the American Athletic Conference so far (5-0), and you probably knew that. Judging from its convincing 75-58 win at South Florida on Saturday, though, its league record-which includes wins already over Connecticut and at Temple-is no fluke. We know there is too much talk about defense in college basketball, but in this case it’s important to note because it’s been the key to the turnaround. The Hurricane is really getting after it, employing a number of attacking zones, and none of its last six opponents has topped 58 points. The best compliment you can give them is that they bear some resemblance to West Virginia. Tulsa is also playing hard offensively, getting some big offensive rebounds and also getting improved play from its backcourt. Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard are averaging a combined 35.4 points in AAC play, and a big frontline is doing a serviceable job. Sometimes it takes time for teams to adjust to new coaches, and it appears that’s what happened this year for the Golden Hurricane in their first year under Frank Haith. This is the same team that lost to SW Oklahoma State in December. Right now, though, it looks like a confident-and very good-team.

It’s time to start paying attention to Tennessee. Have heard some outlets refer to the Volunteers in not-so-glowing terms this year. Wasn’t really sure why then, and they’re even more baffling now. This was never a bad team, one with occasional bad games, yes, (but these days who doesn’t have them?); a bad team, no. Whether he’s done it all legally in the past or not (the NCAA will eventually decide that) it can’t be denied that Donnie Tyndall is a good coach. He had success at Morehead State and Southern Mississippi, and he took over a decent team this year and now has won eight of nine. Most impressive perhaps is the Vols are 3-0 in true road games in the SEC.

Not since Henry Domercant and Kyle (Thrill) Hill were both finishing in the top five nationally in scoring and leading the school to the 2001 NCAA Tournament has Eastern Illinois had so much excitement. The Panthers have won nine straight games, the school’s longest win streak since joining NCAA Division I in 1981-82, and EIU is actually a half game ahead of Murray State at 6-0 in the Ohio Valley West Division. Eastern’s improvement shouldn’t be much a surprise when one knows who their coach is. Jay Spoonhour is the son of SW Missouri State and Saint Louis (and UNLV) legend Charlie Spoonhour, an affable, beloved figure who was one of the more popular coaches of the past 30 years and whose oft-small teams were pests for years in the 1980s and 1990s. Like his father, Jay Spoonhour is winning with a patient, balanced offense and stiff defense. Just two players average more than 7.8 points per game (Chris Olivier at 11.8 and Trae Anderson at 11.1) and five different players have between 15 and 31 three-pointers made. EIU will get a big-time test when it attempts to extend its streak to 10, as the Panthers host Murray State Thursday night in a national broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

A buzz is also starting to build at Georgia Southern. The Eagles drew a sellout crowd of 4,325 at Hanner Fieldhouse for their 78-70 win last week over Louisiana-Lafayette. That win moved GSU to 11-3 overall and 4-1 in the Sun Belt…but then the Eagles lost on Saturday to Troy, previously in the league cellar. The turnaround at Georgia Southern under coach Mark Byington should still start getting some attention. The Eagles are a worthy watch offensively (73.3 points per game) and not afraid to push the pace, and have one of the top scorers nationally in Jelani Hewitt, who averages better than 20 points per game. Coming up for GSU next is the team that, by far better than others, has slowed down the Eagles: Texas State, which lost to Georgia Southern 40-36 on Jan. 3 in a game that featured more than 50% more turnovers (36) than field goals made by both teams combined (23). This is another program that has gone a long time since its last NCAA Tournament bid-1992-but the Eagles have a shot in this year’s Sun Belt that is proving to be far more wide open than the projected two-horse race between Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Terrific article by Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo! Sports about the state of Iowa having three teams in the top 25 (Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Iowa). Having lived there, Iowa is a terrific state full of outstanding people and a great state for basketball, too. The fact a state can have three of its four Division I schools ranked also is a great story. The only thing unfortunate is we didn’t get a chance to see all of them play each other this year. Iowa State and Northern Iowa both defeated Iowa, but the Cyclones and Panthers did not play this year.

Flopping has become a cause celebre in basketball, but while there are certainly cases of theatrics, there also are times when ‘flopping’ gets tagged too quickly. When offensive players are initiating contact on a stationary defender, that is an offensive foul. Defensive players in the post should not be required to bounce off (but still keep their balance defending) offensive players who are intentionally trying to make contact to back them down. If the defender holds his spot and the offensive player bangs into him with solid contact, knocking him down=offensive foul, every time.

Watching The Citadel come back to defeat Wofford 69-66 last week on Thursday was one of the more enjoyable games have viewed this year. It’s always fun to watch military schools win as underdogs, and the Bulldogs were that in this game. The Citadel trailed much of the way against the Southern Conference favorites but kept hanging around, finally taking their first lead of the game with 1:22 left. Ashton Moore scored 29 points in that game, and he’s the guy who makes The Citadel go. Moore is one of the better players you’ve never heard of, averaging 17.8 points per game for the Bulldogs, who are currently 8-10 overall and 3-4 in the Southern. The game marked the Terriers’ first SoCon loss of the season.

So let’s get this straight: the self-titled “power” conferences have pushed through attempts at “student-athlete welfare,” when in some cases even the student-athletes themselves aren’t necessarily for them? During last week’s NCAA convention, many student-athlete advisory committee (SAAC) representatives opposed a rule that forbids coaches from not renewing one-year athletic scholarships for athletic reasons, i.e., running them off because they’re not good enough, not working hard enough, etc. SAAC reps believe that coaches should have the leeway to get rid of teammates of theirs that they don’t believe are working hard enough. In other words, even when the schools claim to have the student-athlete in mind, they really don’t.

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