Whether a team is contending for a conference championship or an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, there is never a bad time or place to win games on the road in conference play.
Though many are just beginning their league slates as we wrap up 2015, a number of teams picked up important wins away from home on Wednesday. Flashy wins over top 25-level opponents they were not, but no matter. The manner of victory is irrelevant; any wins in hostile environments are nearly as important as those big chances at home against top 25-level squads.
If a team is in one of the top conferences, a solid recipe for an at-large bid is to generally hold serve at home against league foes, and if it can’t win them all at home, then grab at least enough road games to make up for those home losses. It’s the least we should be able to expect: if a team can’t win at least half of its league tilts, it really has no business being bummed if it can’t make the Big Dance.
Indiana and other Big Ten teams shouldn’t assume home wins over teams like Michigan State, Maryland or Purdue, so the Hoosiers’ 79-72 win at Rutgers was an important piece of work in advance.
It wasn’t pretty. IU played without James Blackmon, who was injured in practice on Monday. The Hoosiers also turned it over 23 times, and Thomas Bryant needed just six minutes of playing time to rack up five fouls. Max Bielfeldt helped save the day, though, with 18 points and 14 rebounds, and Indiana kept a comfortable-enough working margin in winning its sixth straight game.
The same disregard for style points goes for Northwestern’s 81-72 defeat of Nebraska, as well as Michigan’s 78-68 win at Illinois. In fact, all three road Big Ten winners shared not just the circumstances of location, but also outstanding performances from seemingly nowhere.
The Wildcats trailed by 12 in the second half, but came back behind 28 points and 12 boards from Dererk Pardon. If you haven’t heard of Pardon, that’s OK. For one, he’s a freshman. For another, he just had a redshirt taken off last week and was playing just his second collegiate game. With Northwestern’s non-conference schedule strength, which ranks well in the 300s, every win is important if the Wildcats want to make their first-ever trip to the NCAAs.
Michigan also was down at halftime against the Fighting Illini, but owned the second half to improve to 11-3. The catalyst was none other than Mark Donnal. A player averaging less than four points and just over two rebounds entering the day, Donnal posted career highs off the bench of 26 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots.
It goes without saying that if you’re not in one of the top handful of conferences, your margin of error for an at-large bid is of course even slimmer and every road game even more valuable. In that regard, Houston, Arkansas-Little Rock and even Southern Illinois also earned wins that matter more than meets the eye.
Houston’s 73-67 win at South Florida was a step in the right direction for a team looking to fight its way into postseason consideration. The improving Cougars have played a low-rated schedule and have a lot of traffic to work through in the American Athletic Conference, but that same daunting challenge also offers regular opportunities for big wins to impress. The first step to get into that position, though, is to take care of business against perceived bottom AAC teams like the Bulls, including on the road, and Damyean Dotson’s five three-pointers and 17 points helped Houston win a game even as it was outrebounded 45-23.
UALR defeated South Alabama 69-60. The Trojans of course were one of the last undefeated teams and have received much-deserved attention for their non-conference work, but much of that could’ve come undone with a loss to the 5-7 Jaguars in their Sun Belt opener.
Finally, Southern Illinois is still a long way from NCAA tourney at-large consideration, but the Salukis are now a surprising 12-2 after a 72-62 win at Loyola (Ill.) in their Missouri Valley schedule tip-off. The Salukis won 12 games all of last year but are now a perfect 5-0 on the road. Whether SIU is an NCAA contender or not, it most certainly will contend for the Valley title if it continues to play that well on the road.
- Continuing the theme of teams winning big road games, Seton Hall opened its Big East schedule with an 83-63 win at Marquette. Desi Rodriguez scored a career-best 19 and the Pirates pulled away late on the strength of defense, limiting the hosts to 23 points and 25.8% shooting in the second half.
- The best performance of the day came from Maryland freshman Diamond Stone. The center scored 39 points against Penn State, and the Terrapins needed every one of them in a tougher-than-expected 70-64 win.
- Virginia topped Oakland 71-58 in a non-conference game, though the Golden Grizzlies’ Kahlil Felder again stole some of the thunder in defeat. Felder scored 30 of his team’s 58 points.
- More quality road wins: Fresno State won at UNLV for just the second time ever, defeating the Runnin’ Rebels 69-66. The Bulldogs will be a tough out in the Mountain West this year, while the Rebels are becoming one puzzling team. Also, Army won at Lehigh 88-82 in its Patriot League opener. Coach Zach Spiker’s team also faced a potential trap coming off a big win over Monmouth just a few days earlier.
Today’s Menu: Don’t worry about an overhyped non-playoff football “playoff” (we’ll call it a real playoff when it provides reasonable access to every Division I-A or FBS team, which the current system does not). There’s plenty of basketball worth your attention instead, and it starts early.
- Maybe two of the biggest games of the year in the Big East are also the conference openers for the top four teams entering league play. Xavier and Villanova (Noon EST, FS1) tip it off, and if the Musketeers come out of this one in Philly undefeated, then they have a legit claim on the No. 1 ranking next week with Michigan State’s loss Tuesday. Then, Providence is at Butler (2:30 p.m., CBSSN), and while the matchups maybe aren’t head-to-head, there is a lot of high-grade talent in this one with Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil (Providence) against Kerwin Dunham and Roosevelt Jones (Butler).
- CAA play fires up, and the best game looks to be the College of Charleston at James Madison. Delaware also is at Hofstra.
- Gonzaga has a tricky road game at Santa Clara, a team the Bulldogs should dominate, but the same would’ve been said about Arizona before the Wildcats needed overtime to beat the Broncos in November.
- Drake plays at Wichita State (2 p.m., ESPNU), and always-enthusiastic broadcaster Mark Adams has promised to be up to the occasion of being on site in front of the terrific Shocker home crowd and on New Year’s Eve.
- A quality game in the Big South has Radford on the road to face High Point.
- Finally, ring in the new year with a big game in the WCC as BYU goes to St. Mary’s (11 p.m., ESPNU).
Happy New Year’s Eve.