Believe it or not, last year was actually supposed to be Radford’s year.
Entering the 2014-15 campaign, the Highlanders were coming off a 22-win season and an exciting CBI victory at Oregon State. Radford returned all five starters, including one of the Big South’s best backcourts with R.J. Price and Rashun Davis. Rightfully so, the team was one of the favorites in its conference.
Radford had a nice season, but didn’t quite take the next step. In a mighty competitive Big South-where five teams finished within a game of first in the regular season-the Highlanders again won 22 games and even won at Virginia Tech, but also lost at Georgetown by 27 and exited the conference tournament in the quarterfinals, ending the season with another trip to the CBI.
With just two starters returning, it’s not surprising that less is expected this year. The esteemed Blue Ribbon Yearbook picked Radford ninth of 11 teams in the Big South. In fairness, the conference preseason poll has the Highlanders fourth, though the Sporting News Yearbook tabs them for seventh.
Prognostications of being a mid-pack team in its conference, at best, makes Radford’s 82-80 double-overtime win over Georgetown on Saturday very nearly the equal of the biggest shockers on Friday, when Summit League second-division squad Western Illinois knocked off national finalist Wisconsin and little Monmouth of the MACC slayed mighty UCLA.
Davis scored 28 points against the Hoyas, the final three on a cold-blooded pull-up three-pointer with 1.5 seconds left. Cameron Jones-another veteran guard-added 20 points, and Radford recorded arguably the biggest win in its school history and also struck another early blow this year for the smaller schools in NCAA Division I.
Of course, it’s still incredibly early, and the genuine upsets we’ve seen over the first two days likely won’t continue at this rate. But early results are exposing once again just how ridiculous it is that so many-including many in the media-want to hold five or six conferences at one level, and nearly everyone else-save for an occasional Gonzaga, Wichita State or really good Atlantic 10 team-several notches below.
The wide disparity in TV contracts is irrelevant; there is no direct correlation between schools’ TV revenue share and their teams’ level of play.
The first two days of this season are only confirming what has usually been obvious, if one looks at the actual results in both college basketball and football. While the very, very top powerhouse programs might be on a different level (especially when they are almost always playing non-conference games at home), they’re on a different level from everyone, including many of their own conference mates. In many cases, the gap between the middle and bottom of the top conferences and the better teams in the remaining Division I leagues is not big. In some cases it’s very small. In some cases, it doesn’t exist in the least.
Make no mistake, some of the results on Friday and Saturday were stunners. A ninth-place (or seventh-place, or even fourth-place) pick in the Big South beating a top Big East team on the road is an upset. To look at it another way, though, this was a team with 44 wins over the last two years-including wins over brand-name football schools each of the last two years-beating another team that has been vulnerable to upsets. Surprises are part of what make college basketball; at the same time, when these type of results happen, maybe the time has come that we shouldn’t be so surprised.
- A short schedule on Saturday was fairly light on notable results. In addition to Radford’s win, Alabama State also went to Blacksburg and defeated Virginia Tech 85-82. The Hornets should be contenders in the SWAC, and Jamel Waters (21 points, six rebounds, seven assists) is one of the best players in the league, but it’s obviously still a surprise when road-weary teams from the league pick up wins away from home in November and December. Well-earned victory for ASU.
- Colorado State picked up what many would call a surprise, winning 84-78 at Northern Iowa. Five CSU players scored in double figures; perhaps the Rams won’t fall as far as some thought the year after they were hosed out of an NCAA Tournament bid, though UNI coach Ben Jacobson will undoubtedly be looking to firm up the defense after this game.
- Kentucky and Duke both rolled, with the Wildcats handling NJIT 87-57 and the Blue Devils over Bryant. Grayson Allen filled it up again with 28 for Duke, while Skal Labissiere scored 26 for UK.
- Individual stars Saturday: Providence All-American Kris Dunn was sensational stuffing the statsheet, with a career-high 32 points plus six rebounds, five assists and eight steals in the Friars’ 76-64 win over Harvard. Davidson’s Jack Gibbs also went off for 35 points in the Wildcats’ closer-than-expected 90-85 win over Central Florida.
- Butler defeated The Citadel 144-71. Or maybe the Bulldogs played U.S. International, the one-time D-I independent famous for barnstorming the country and scoring a hundred while surrendering sometimes up to 50-60 more than that. This game was entirely about The Citadel getting used to a dramatically different style of play under Duggar Baucom, who regularly had VMI among the national scoring leaders, as well as the Bulldogs taking advantage of every opportunity presented and dominating inside with a 92-18 lead in points in the paint and a 63-28 rebounding mega-advantage. The Citadel pressed all over the floor, Butler handled the pressure and scored easy baskets.
- The worst was confirmed for Rhode Island on the injury to star guard E.C. Matthews, who will miss the season after tearing his ACL. Very unfortunate for Matthews and the Rams, who were both primed for big seasons. URI can still be good, and maybe even make the NCAA Tournament, but it will have to be resourceful to do so.
- N.C. State’s tough weekend also continued, as it was announced guard Terry Henderson will miss 6-8 weeks with torn ligaments in his ankle. Henderson suffered the injury in the Wolfpack’s season-opening loss to William & Mary.
- Illinois also will be without guard Jaylon Tate for awhile. Tate suffered an open dislocation in the Fighting Illini’s season-opening loss to North Florida on Friday. A timetable for his return was not announced.
- College basketball needs another postseason tournament like college football needs more bowls, which most people need like three flat tires on their car. Which is exactly why it has been announced another tourney is in the works. The Vegas 16 will take place all at one site and over the course of five days. The model is a near-copy of the NAIA tournament, which famously has brought 32 small college teams to Kansas City and other locations and the winner must win five games in seven days.
- The best game of the day may well be Iona traveling to face Valparaiso. The Crusaders are everyone’s favorite small school sleeper pick this year, while the Gaels are always worth the price of admission.
- A fierce rivalry is renewed when New Mexico State hosts New Mexico.
- No. 1-ranked North Carolina hosts Fairfield, while another MAAC school in Siena follows up a trip to Duke by taking on Wisconsin.
- An intriguing game has Louisiana-Monroe at Minnesota. ULM was outstanding defensively last year and has the size to compete.
- Another team that is strong defensively could cause trouble on the road, as Cal Poly goes to UCLA. One would think the Mustangs can’t score enough to stay with the Bruins, but they would’ve thought the same about Monmouth on Friday…
- Also, if Illinois was vulnerable at home against North Florida, the Illini better beware of North Dakota State visiting as well.
- Finally, Coastal Carolina at Hawaii is another game that doesn’t pass the brand name test but would be worth a watch, if you can only find it on TV.
Enjoy your Sunday.