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Scanning the Nation Notebook – January 29, 2015

January 29, 2015 Columns No Comments

Some college basketball thoughts as we near the end of January and full-time talk about the “bubble” is just around the corner:

    • He’s not going to be talked about as much as guys like Kelly Oubre, Cliff Alexander or even Devonte Graham, but Brannen Greene is someone who has been coming up big in big games for Kansas. The 6-7 sophomore has four of his five double-figure scoring games this year against top competition: 19 points at Georgetown (including 5-of-5 three-point shooting), 14 points last weekend against Texas, plus 12 points each against Baylor and Oklahoma. It’s strange that he’s averaging just under six points per game, but it’s also awful nice to have a clutch player like him in your back pocket.

    • With Butler’s play this year, it’s easy to forget just how bad the Bulldogs were just a year ago. That’s how much Roosevelt Jones matters to the team, as well as the value of an increasingly beefy frontline and a year of experience. If there were a national most valuable player award, Jones would deserve consideration; that’s how good and how valuable he is. Don’t be misled by the close scores in the Big East this year, this is a team that is built for NCAA Tournament success and could easily make another run in the tourney this year. And of course, Chris Holtmann deserves a good share of credit as well for the coaching job he has done with this team.
    • Once again, officiating is becoming looser as conference play goes on, and the result is games like Virginia and Virginia Tech on Sunday. The final was UVA 50, VPI 47, and if anyone wonders why so many are throwing around the term “unwatchable” in regards to college basketball, just watch the tape and see how much hand-checking was allowed in that game. Every single possession both ways had defenders slowing down offensive players with their hands and arms. It should not happen. It takes no skill to hand-check and it’s lazy defense. L-A-Z-Y. And not to be harsh, but when officials refuse to call it, they frankly deserve that exact same adjective for their work.
    • Like it’s easy to forget how bad Butler was last year, it’s just as easy to forget how good St. Joseph’s was at the end of 2013-14. Memorably, the Hawks came ever-so-close to knocking Connecticut out of the NCAA tourney in their opening game last year. This year, Phil Martelli’s team is understandably below the radar-that’s what happens when a team loses three seniors from a team that went barely six-deep last year, and a brutal 94-42 loss to Gonzaga in November pretty much guaranteed anonymity this year. In some ways, St. Joe’s 8-11 record is almost an accomplishment. There are wins over Temple, Massachusetts and Vermont, and seven of the Hawks’ 11 losses are by five points or less. Also, it should be noted that DeAndre Bembry has been absolutely outstanding this season (17.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.9 apg, 2.1 spg). A ton was put on the sophomore’s shoulders coming into the season, and he has been every bit as good as one could’ve expected. Bembry also has undeniably the best Afro in the sport right now, a classic look that suggests a guy who could’ve walked right off an ABA court.
    • Have you seen the logjam in the Mountain West? Seven teams-seven-are all within one game of first place. Wyoming and San Diego State lead at 6-2, while Colorado State, Boise State, New Mexico, Utah State and Fresno State all are tied for third at 5-3. Those first three teams have gotten the most ink this year, but keep an eye on Boise State and Utah State, both capable of stealing the league title if 1) Derrick Marks can continue to run wild for Boise or 2) Utah State can come out on top in a few more close games.
    • Iona, Eastern Washington, William & Mary, Louisiana-Lafayette, Stephen F. Austin. All are among the better offensive teams in the country. All are led by coaches who have backgrounds coaching in the small college and/or junior college levels of the sport. Just something to ponder.
    • The Washington Post had an interesting article topic in its sports section this past weekend, pondering what has happened to George Mason since making the Final Four in 2006 and noting the program’s relative slide in recent years. While undoubtedly the Patriots have slipped since Jim Larranaga left for Miami (Fla.), the program also has not done well since moving to the Atlantic 10. It should be noted that this is the danger of schools jumping conferences and leaving comfortable fits for more “exposure” but also more challenges. George Mason was a perfect fit in the CAA in the league’s prime, facing regional rivals and competing for the title every year in a league that had established itself as a consistent challenger for at-large bids and NCAA Tournament wins. It left for a conference that has a few of its old rivals (Richmond, VCU) but also is spread from New England to Ohio and all the way across the Mississippi River. Granted, the CAA that Mason left was undoubtedly not the same one it had so much success in, not after the departures of VCU to the A-10 and Old Dominion to Conference USA to pursue football riches. Given its current level of support, though (the article notes Mason is near the bottom in budget in the Atlantic 10), it’s quite possible that playing James Madison and William & Mary still makes more sense for this program than playing Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure. Fans love to play the conference expansion game and think every time a program upgrades its conference it can only be for the better, but there can absolutely be downsides to it. This also applies to Creighton, which had a wonderful first year in the Big East but in its second year was winless in conference until Wednesday and is traveling halfway across country to take its losses.
    • Oakland is playing spoiler in the Horizon League. The Golden Grizzlies have now defeated each of the league’s top three teams, first Valparaiso and Wisconsin-Green Bay and now Cleveland State after a 59-56 win Monday night. In fact, Greg Kampe’s team has climbed into fourth in the league, just one game out of a tie for first place. Oakland being a tough out is nothing new; Kampe’s teams have been challenging and occasionally beating more established opponents for years. But after a 1-5 start and a 5-12 record after 17 games, this year’s team is a surprise to be causing so much trouble in the Horizon. A less-than favorable schedule down the stretch will test the Golden Grizzlies (three home games, five road games), but it also will provide plenty of opportunities to impress if Oakland can hang around at the top of the conference.
    • Why is it that frequently the same commentators who praise officials when they don’t call fouls for “allowing players to decide the game” are the same ones who love slapping coaches on the back when they slow down the ends of games by fouling with a three-point lead? Shouldn’t coaches trust their players enough to allow them to decide the game in these situations? Sorry, but the ends of most close games in this sport are nigh unwatchable (there’s that word again) with all the timeouts and fouls intentionally committed, even by teams leading in games. Don’t care what the percentages say on fouling when up three, just sick of watching it. Let the players play ball, and if the opponent makes a tough shot (something not very likely in this sport right now) then go on to overtime. At some point we need to get back to giving this game back to the players.
    • North Carolina Central is once again atop the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in impressive fashion, sitting as the only undefeated in the league at 8-0. The Eagles are not doing it in as pretty of fashion as last year, though, looking more like a reliable Volvo that is good for the long haul than the Porsche that is a winner with style. NCCU has five conference wins by single digits, including four by a combined 12 points. In a 55-54 win over fellow MEAC contender Delaware State on Monday, it took Anthony McDonald scoring 23 points in a game in which leading scorer Jordan Parks had just four. LaVelle Moton continues to do a great job coaching the Eagles, who have a pair of impressive streaks going on: thirty-one consecutive wins at home at McDougald-McLendon Gymnasium, plus a 23-game regular season winning streak against MEAC foes.

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