We’re reaching the time of the college basketball season where we’re about to start seeing teams undergo a serious in-season transformation.
Teams never remain static-that’s the nature of sports, why teams practice, and also the result of injuries and differences in opposition. Adding to that this time of year is that, in many cases, teams are past stressful final exams and/or have had some time to recharge around the holidays. Non-conference play is wrapping up and a truly new season is just around the corner with conference play lurking.
For those who surprised out of conference, there is no guarantee success will carry over when playing more familiar opponents. At the same time, inevitably we’ll see the emergence of some teams that had a tough time in November and December but step it up several notches in league play.
If you’re looking for a candidate for a team to get on a run soon, you can do a lot worse than Belmont. The Bruins are perennially a dangerous team, and they proved it again Monday night by knocking off Valparaiso 85-81 to gain a split of the teams’ home-and-home series this year.
Evan Bradds, Craig Bradshaw and Taylor Barnette provide a three-headed offensive threat for the Bruins, and the trio combined for 63 points. Belmont shot 50%, not an easy task against a Crusaders team that came in ranked eighth in the nation in field goal percentage defense.
The Bruins entered with a somewhat disappointing 7-6 overall record, which sounds poor for a team that was a favorite for its eighth NCAA Tournament trip in 11 years until one realizes Belmont played 10 of its first 13 games away from home, including nine true road games.
The schedule has included trips to Marquette, Arizona State, Evansville, BYU, local rivals Lipscomb and Middle Tennessee State plus an earlier close loss at Valpo. The fact is, even top 20 teams would’ve had trouble coming out of that slate with less than four losses.
Belmont is still a terrific shooting team and now has wins against Marquette and Valparaiso, and the Bruins still will be a favorite in the OVC. Anything less than 20 wins will be a surprise, and it would be no surprise at all if Rick Byrd’s team is once again in the OVC tourney final for the fourth time in four years in the conference.
For Valparaiso, the loss is disappointing, if not necessarily surprising. The Crusaders have been pillaged by injuries this year, first to David Skara and Tevonn Walker and most recently to outstanding defender E. Victor Nickerson, who is out with a fracture in his wrist.
Still, any number of comments on this game pronounced the Crusaders’ NCAA Tournament at-large hopes as dead after this loss. Nonsense. Valpo went out and played a very tough non-conference schedule, and the NCAA selection committee routinely says it takes into account injuries when evaluating teams. With wins at Oregon State and the effort to play teams like Oregon, Rhode Island and Belmont on the road, Bryce Drew’s team will likely need to win the Horizon League regular season crown, but if it does so, and doesn’t use up 5-6 losses to do it, then an at-large berth will be a reasonable possibility.
- Among ranked teams, both North Carolina and Duke dominated their guarantee games, with the Tar Heels handling UNC-Greensboro 96-63 and the Blue Devils hammering Elon 105-66. Brice Johnson was terrific for UNC again-16 points, 16 rebounds. Duke scored 70 in the first half, and we can officially point out now that one has been asleep if they think coaches haven’t changed this year in response to college basketball’s rule changes. Shortening the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 and calling a couple more fouls a game doesn’t come close to accounting for teams suddenly putting up 70 in a half, even as these totals are almost always coming in games that are woeful mismatches. It’s amazing how teams can score points when coaches just let them.
- Villanova easily handled Pennsylvania 77-57 in a Big 5 game, the Wildcats’ 13th straight win in Big 5 play. Jalen Brunson was outstanding with 22 points, while the Quakers scored just 11 points in the first half.
- Monmouth very clearly is a team learning to handle the level of success it’s had this year. The Hawks lost at Army on Monday 91-84. Army is 9-3, was at home and is not bad at all, but it just makes little sense that Monmouth can win convincingly at Georgetown, win at UCLA and beat Notre Dame and USC at neutral sites, yet now has lost at Canisius and Army.
- California hammered Davidson 86-60, and that is now three blowout losses for the Wildcats this year against the three best teams they’ve played. Cal shot 52.5%, including 12 of 22 on three-pointers, while in a recurring theme in its losses, Davidson shot an ice-cold 31.3% and was outrebounded 50-31.
- Arizona State continues to impress, and last night defeated a solid Cal State-Bakersfield team 75-59 in a score illustrating why margin of victory should not be used in any NCAA Tournament computers. This was a three-point game with less than five minutes left and still a six-point game with just over two minutes remaining, but ASU closed on a 14-4 run over the final 2:07, including nine free throws down the stretch. Tra Holder scored a career-high 23 for the Sun Devils, while the Roadrunners pounded ASU on the glass for a 46-29 rebounding advantage.
- Have to love the single-double by Houston guard Galen Robinson Jr. on Monday-zero points, 10 assists in the Cougars’ 76-49 win over Nicholls State.
- Saint Mary’s keeps rolling and is now 11-1 after a 65-50 win over Utah Valley. Also, Grand Canyon improved to 12-2 with an 86-75 win at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
- Weather caused the postponement of the game between New Mexico State and Wichita State in Kansas. The plan originally was to play the game today, but the Aggies were still unable to catch a flight to Wichita on Monday, so the contest now has been postponed indefinitely.
- An obstacle for Texas as Cameron Ridley suffered a broken foot in practice on Sunday and will be out “indefinitely,” per the school. Ridley has been having an excellent year, averaging nearly 13 points plus 10.0 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per contest.
- The American Athletic Conference begins league play with some good ones. Unbeaten SMU is at Tulsa (5 p.m. EST, ESPN2), Temple goes to Cincinnati (2 p.m., ESPN2) and Tulane plays at Memphis (1 p.m., ESPNU). Meanwhile, Connnecticut is at Texas (9 p.m., ESPN2) in a prime non-conference matchup.
- The Big Ten also has a couple big ones to start its conference slates: Purdue at Wisconsin (7 p.m., BTN) and Michigan State at Iowa (9 p.m., BTN). The Spartans struggled with Oakland in a more-home-than-neutral game last week, and this is certainly a tough road trip to start league play.
- Kansas gets a good challenge at Allen Fieldhouse against pesky UC Irvine (9 p.m., ESPNU).
Before the season, few would’ve thought of Richmond at Texas Tech as a game with serious at-large implications in March, but that’s exactly what their matchup Tuesday could be.
- Still not sure what we have in either Florida State or Florida, but their annual game (7 p.m., ESPN2) will be a fun one to watch.
- A game that can be surprisingly much better than you would think: Tennessee State at Tennessee.
- Northeastern is always a fun team to watch when it plays name brand competition, so the Huskies’ game at N.C. State certainly bears watching.
- Central Michigan is at William & Mary in a game that should feature a lot of offense.
Have a super Tuesday of your holiday week.