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Scanning the Nation Notebook: Atlantic 10, Wisconsin, Siena, Notre Dame & more

February 11, 2016 Columns No Comments

The Atlantic 10 is a more-than solid conference this year, comfortably in seventh in the conference RPI and with at least four NCAA Tournament-quality teams-and maybe five, depending on if St. Bonaventure can finish strong. That said, we fear the league is cannibalizing its own too much, and it’s conceivable that the A-10 could finish with as few as two or (gasp) one NCAA bid, should Dayton win the conference tournament.

George Washington, Saint Joseph’s, VCU and St. Bonaventure all are far from sure things for bids, and it’s certainly possible the selection committee will regard results such as GW winning at VCU and then losing at home (by 18 points) to Saint Joseph’s as signs of mediocrity more than strength. Should the numbers hold at or near their currents, we sure hope the committee seriously considers VCU’s improvement since late December (12 straight wins before the loss to the Colonials), St. Joe’s road record (9-0) and the Bonnies’ lack of bad losses (the worst are at RPI No. 106 Duquesne and 107 Siena, hardly a complete embarrassment), but we’re not optimistic. The committee likes to talk about road wins-and these four are a combined 26-8 away from home-yet regularly (and wrongly, from this view) ignores consistent road winners in favor of those who make one or two splashes away from home out of conference…

The fickle nature of the three-pointer has been displayed ever since it was introduced to college basketball, perhaps never more notably than when VCU went on its run through the 2011 NCAA Tournament all the way to the Final Four while averaging nearly 11 three-pointers per game over five games, significantly above its regular season average. You never know when a team is going to heat up, and we’ve recently seen this with Wisconsin, which in its last two games has hit 24 triples in defeating Ohio State and Nebraska at the Kohl Center, making 53.3% from long range in those two contests. Prior to that, the Badgers were averaging only 5.4 threes per game and had hit as many as eight in a game just once all year. Even now, Wisconsin still ranks tied for 275th in Division I in that category, but it took advantage of both the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers concentrating their defensive efforts inside, and they have certainly now forced their remaining opponents to reconsider how they guard. That’s a good thing, considering the Badgers now start a brutal final seven games that includes road trips to Maryland, Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue (yikes) plus what will certainly be a big home game with Michigan…

Along the same lines in which we opined a few weeks ago that the Missouri Valley is a better league when Southern Illinois is good, the same goes for the Metro Atlantic when Siena is playing well. The Saints always seem to play a style that is fun to watch, even when they weren’t coached by the always-entertaining himself Jimmy Patsos. Their ability to draw big crowds at the Times Union Center in Albany also adds a buzz to the MAAC that it noticeably misses when Siena is struggling. The Saints also have an exciting freshman guard in Nico Clareth, who plays with flair and is part of the growing line of quality backcourt men there going back to Doremus Bennerman-who once scored 51 points in an NIT game-and Marc Brown, who led Siena to its memorable 1989 NCAA tourney upset of Stanford. Monmouth and Iona receive the buzz in the MAAC right now, and understandably so, but don’t count out the Saints. By the way, and this is more than just a little bit important: Siena hosts the MAAC Tournament in March…

By the way, we don’t often give World Wide Web “shout-outs” (isn’t it better to tell people personally or even with an email message if you think they’re awesome?) but have always enjoyed listening to Doug Sherman call MAAC games, first for the MAAC television network and now as well for ESPN. Sherman has handled the MAAC for nearly 20 years now and is a pro, easy to listen to and knowledgeable of the league. It’s almost become hard to picture anyone else calling MAAC games. And we also really enjoyed the pairing of him with former Marist women’s basketball star Julianne Viani for the St. Peter’s/Siena game on ESPN2 recently. Very enjoyable team to listen to, and a good example of how broadcasts can mix in hard play-by-play analysis and still be pleasant doing so…

Keep reading that Notre Dame is a “good-but-not-great” team this year. Maybe the Irish aren’t as great as they were last year, but we’d prefer to call them “very, very good.” The list of quality wins is growing-now including Iowa, Duke, North Carolina and Clemson on the road, and it’s becoming clear Mike Brey’s team is capable of beating anyone at any time. It’s true that there are times when they’ve struggled to put away lesser squads. ND also can’t keep teams from penetrating at times (see their loss at Miami last week) and occasionally stops doing what it does so well, which is moving the ball offensively as well as just about anyone in the country (for us, the Fighting Irish, Iona, Stephen F. Austin and William & Mary first come to mind forming an upper pantheon in that figurative category). There are few teams more fun to watch, and that Notre Dame does it without an abundance of size makes them even more unique, even as their lack of size means they don’t always pass the dreaded eye test…

Here comes Coastal Carolina again. The Chanticleers were once just 2-4 in the Big South and 8-8 overall but have won seven straight and moved into second place in the Big South, just one game behind leader UNC Asheville entering another key game Thursday night against High Point. Speaking of three-pointers earlier, Coastal has firmed up its perimeter defense in those last seven games, limiting teams to 25.3% on triples, and South Carolina transfer Jaylen Shaw also has given the balanced Chants another scoring weapon, averaging 11.6 ppg on the season and helping make up for the loss of veterans Josh Cameron and Warren Gillis, key players as Cliff Ellis’s team made the NCAA Tournament the last two years…

Seeing constant internet headlines complaining of officiating gets old-refs will always be subject to scrutiny, and that’s part of sports, but far too often it goes overboard. The end of the first overtime between Boise State and Colorado State Wednesday night, though, reminds us once again of our stance that college basketball is better off without instant replay. Too often we see plays reviewed-and then the review gets it wrong. The most noticeable example was the end of the 2014 Wisconsin/Arizona NCAA Tournament West Regional final, when it seemed officials were trying their darndest to find a reason to change a call, and after about seven minutes finally did so to give the Wildcats one final chance to tie the game in the closing seconds. This year at least it seems like the long, drawn-out reviews have been minimized (part of the reason why games are finishing faster) but there’s no excuse for getting a review wrong, as it certainly seems happened in the game Wednesday. Officials make mistakes in a game, and that’s ok-players and coaches make bunches of them. But when the mistakes are made in an exercise that is supposed to be fixing them, or when reviews are taking 5-10 minutes because officials are trying to find some piece of evidence to overturn a call, that’s a problem. Until a system can be implemented where reviews take no more than a minute and the original call is left alone thereafter, there’s little reason to waste the time trying to correct what may or may not be mistakes, while also only feeding the misguided idea that everyone is entitled to perfection from referees…

Another team heating up: Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns missed in high-profile chances against Miami (Fla.), Alabama and UCLA early in the season but have won eight straight in the Sun Belt to move to 13-8 overall (9-3 in conference). Shawn Long received a lot of buzz before the season but has been mostly forgotten since, but he hasn’t gone away and has 16 double-doubles this year, including a staggering 10 games with 20 points and at least 13 rebounds. ULL is a poor three-point shooting team (30.9%, 311th of 346 teams qualifying for the the official NCAA Division I statistics), which will hurt the Ragin’ Cajuns against Arkansas-Little Rock’s pack-it-in defense, but Long is a difference-maker, the type of player who can carry his team to a conference tournament title…

It’s hard to decide whether the Northeast or the Ohio Valley is the conference with more surprising teams at the top this year. The NEC has Fairleigh Dickinson (ninth in the conference’s preseason poll) and St. Francis (Pa.) (picked eighth) and Wagner (sixth in the preseason poll) in first entering Thursday night games. Meanwhile, Tennessee Tech was surprisingly tied with Belmont for first in the OVC East before a loss to Tennessee State, which is just 1 1/2 games back of the Bruins. TSU in particular has been one of the best stories in the country-the Tigers had just five wins each of the last two years, but are 17-7 overall. In the OVC West, Eastern Illinois holds down first place, one game ahead of Murray State and 1 1/2 in front of last year’s upstart Tennessee-Martin. Terrific stories abound in both of these leagues, and will make their conference tournaments especially fun to watch next month…

The Summit League tournament also should live up to its growing reputation as the best conference tourney few know about. Led by South Dakota State and IPFW at 8-3, five teams are separated by one loss and a total of 1 1/2 games, and the team in fifth right now-North Dakota State-just may be the most dangerous. The Bison won last year’s event, recently disposed of IPFW handily and have been close in most of their losses this year, with five of their eight coming by single digits, including four by a combined 13 points. NDSU also has a scorer capable of taking over in versatile sophomore A.J. Jacobson, who averages 13.3 ppg and stepped up with 20 and 22 points in the team’s last two games, including 16 in the second half of a win over Oral Roberts last week after leading scorer Paul Miller went down in the first half with a knee injury. Miller is expected to rejoin the team yet this season, and if he does it gives the Bison two players capable of getting baskets in crunch time, which will be critical in the league tourney…

That sound you can barely hear in the MVC is Northern Iowa creeping up very quietly, still lying in the weeds but ready to pounce. The Panthers have won five straight to move to 7-6 in the Valley and 15-11 overall, and a second- or third-place finish is not out of the question, with positions 2-6 currently separated by just 1 1/2 games. Wes Washpun provides the electricity, but sophomore Bennett Koch is the player to keep an eye on. The brother of former UNI stars Jake and Adam Koch has games of 22 and 19 points over those last five games, and he gives the team an interior presence it has not had this year with the departure of All-American Seth Tuttle. Increasingly, the Panthers are trying to run their offense through Koch, and they are a different team when he is playing well. We already know UNI is capable team on wins over North Carolina and Iowa State, so it wouldn’t be a total shock if they put together a run in March and get back to the NCAA tourney.

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