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Scanning the Nation Notebook – Dec. 6, 2016

December 6, 2016 Columns No Comments

Temple will still have ups and downs this season because of how young the Owls are. But the talent Fran Dunphy has is sure going to be fun to watch. Obi Enechionyia is playing with supreme confidence right now, a 6-foot-8 matchup nightmare who is on fire from three, and freshmen Quinton Rose and Alani Moore are playing major minutes and are exciting, energetic players. Josh Brown also has returned from an Achilles injury faster than many expected and provides veteran leadership. Temple’s players also are moving themselves and moving the ball more this year than in recent years. The Owls’ wins over Florida State and West Virginia were no flukes.

-It seems almost every season there’s that Pac-12 team off to a great start that we’d recommend one to still pause before jumping on the bandwagon. That’s where we’re at with USC right now. The Trojans have what appears to be a very good win at Texas A&M, solid home wins against SMU and BYU…and not much else yet. Elijah Stewart is playing well, Chimezie Metu is a much-improved foul shooter (from 51.3% to 78.8%) and De’Anthony Melton has been a quality freshman, but will USC keep holding teams to 38.9% shooting the rest of the season? The eye test says no, not when the competition gets tougher, but we’ll see.

-It doesn’t take long watching Virginia Tech to see that the Hokies are a team being formed in the image of their coach. Buzz Williams’s teams at Marquette were regularly tough and physical but also better than the sum of their parts and made of players who got better. Zach LeDay plays like an enforcer.

-As we’re now nearly a month into the season, we’re starting to see a number of teams that were on the preseason sleeper lists steady themselves after perhaps slow starts. Middle Tennessee State is now 8-1, while UNC Wilmington is 7-1 with its only loss to the Blue Raiders. Valparaiso also is 7-1 even after a convincing loss at Oregon, and the Crusaders get a chance to make an impression if they can at least stay close this week at Kentucky. The lesson: don’t forget about these teams just because of early missteps.

Loyola (Ill.) is now a surprising 7-2 after an eye-opening win against San Diego State. That came just a week after the Ramblers pushed North Carolina State for 40 minutes on the road before losing to the Wolfpack by two. Newcomer Aundre Jackson is easily one of the biggest impact players in the Missouri Valley and he and another newcomer (Clayton Custer) have helped dramatically improve the team’s shooting percentage after last year’s squad struggled so much to score. Porter Moser’s team is suddenly one to watch in the Valley.

-Also in regards to the MVC, the league is doing better than expected in this year’s challenge event with the Mountain West, leading it 5-4 pending the final game later this month between Southern Illinois and UNLV. And that was with poor Drake losing by single digits for the sixth time this year in a 78-76 loss in overtime to Fresno State.

-One more MVC note: Indiana State’s win over Utah State-which came when Brenton Scott lost control of the ball in traffic but it went right to T.J. Bell for the winning layup just before the buzzer-might be called fair after the way the Sycamores suffered their first four losses this year. ISU is 4-4 now but its four losses are by a combined 10 points, with none by more than a single possession. The Sycamores very nearly defeated Iowa State and Stanford in the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, yet came out of that event with a 0-3 record after also losing to Quinnipiac by three points. Like Loyola, Indiana State looks like an improved team in the Missouri Valley.

New Orleans quietly had one of the best weeks it has had in a long time. The Privateers defeated city rival Tulane earlier in the week, and then on Saturday easily handled Washington State on the road for a win over a Pac-12 team. A team that returned all five starters from a year ago, UNO got off to a slow start that included a 45-point blowout loss at Oklahoma State, but the Privateers should challenge for a first-division finish in the Southland.

-On Washington State and some of its conference kin, though, it must be said: the bottom of the Pac-12 is not good. Wazzu had home losses to San Jose State and New Orleans in a span of seven days, and the Cougars looked so bad in both that it was almost surprising that they beat Utah Valley in between those two games. Oregon State (3-6 record) also is struggling mightily, in part due to injuries, and Arizona State is really thin and could have a rough December with a tough schedule coming up. The conference’s overall power rating is certainly going to take a hit if these teams continue to struggle, which will be good news or bad news for teams-good news if they can win games against them to gain separation, but bad news if they take losses to any of the three.

-You get chances against big names, you better take advantage of them. UAB has now lost to Auburn two years in a row, including a 74-70 loss at home Saturday. Maybe the Tigers really are vastly improved (though a 25-point loss at Purdue did little to suggest that), but regardless, a team like UAB, if it wants to be a top 40ish program, must beat an SEC middle-to-bottom team like this one. The Blazers have really struggled without point guard Nick Norton, who was lost for the season with an ACL injury in their opener.

-Keep watching that Minnesota team. The Golden Gophers are now 7-1 after a win over Vanderbilt, and only a loss at Florida State keeps them from a perfect record so far. Minnesota is building a non-conference performance that will put it in perfect position to challenge for an NCAA bid if they can just hold serve against the bottom of the Big Ten, beat some teams around the middle and pick off a biggie or two at home.

UC Santa Barbara got off to a 0-5 start before defeating Division II Sonoma State for its first win, a record that does not look good on the surface, but there is hope for the Gauchos. UCSB played USC tougher than the final score showed; the Trojans ran up the margin some in the final few minutes for a 96-72 win last week that was much closer than the final indicated. The Gauchos have an Alan Williams-play-alike in low-post load Jalen Canty, and there may not be a more fearless freshman in the country than guard Max Heidegger, who should also continue to learn when discretion is the better part of valor. UCSB does need to get smooth scorer Gabe Vincent on track (32.9% shooting through five games, but it should be fine in the Big West, which is off to a collectively very bad start (18-44 record through Monday).

-Poor Oral Roberts is off to a 1-7 start against a rugged schedule, with its lone win against NAIA member Rogers State (Okla.) but losses in overtime against Mississippi, by four at Michigan State and by a respectable 15 in the opener at Baylor. ORU showed in the Ole Miss and Michigan State games that it is not far at all from being a pretty good team, one that could contend for the top half of the Summit Leauge, which is again off to a strong start.

-Reading some quoting numbers to claim early RPI numbers prove how it’s flawed just illustrates yet again how the griping about a simple ratings formula because it isn’t like some’s preferred other formulas borders on a vendetta at times. Haven’t we all learned by now that the RPI is not meant as a predictive formula, and that the numbers from it don’t really come into clarity until late January at the earliest? Good grief. The NCAA selects teams for the tourney in March, not in December. No need whatsoever to stress about the RPI right now, in fact if it bothers one so much they’d be best not looking at it at all for a while, because even those who have an ambivalent or better relationship with it probably aren’t looking at it much now, either.

-Saturday finally provided us a solid schedule of games to watch, but ESPN’s televising of Duke’s game against Maine was an embarrassment when it comes to TV’s role in promoting the sport. If choosing to show that game doesn’t illustrate the network’s flat-out nepotism when it comes to coverage of the Blue Devils, nothing will. There were 100 games across the country that would’ve made for better TV viewing than the Dukies with an obvious guarantee game. Again: as long as this is how networks choose to market the sport, and the conferences are OK with it and keep submitting to it, those in charge of the sport really lose their right to complain about what they perceive to be a lack of interest in it.

-Players don’t really have time to dwell on this and shouldn’t during the season, but when seeing George Washington not even close in a listless, close-to-home 67-48 loss to Florida State, one can speculate from the outside all they want: it’s hard not to wonder how GW’s season might’ve turned out differently if not for Mike Lonergan’s firing in mid-September. Unless it was a situation of physical abuse, it’s hard not to see how a severe reprimand in the short term and a possible parting of ways after a season (if the school really felt the need for a change) wouldn’t have been a better option than what GW’s team was put through this season. In fairness to the team now, injuries to Yuta Watanabe and Patrick Steeves are part of the problem, but the Colonials still don’t look like near the team many would’ve expected coming off the high of an NIT title last year.

Boston University was incredibly close to a major splash week, losing by two at Connecticut on Wednesday and then by four on Saturday at N.C. State. The Terriers are going to be a tough out in the Patriot League.

-Was that score on Sunday correct? Niagara won at Iona 74-58? What a nice win for the Purple Eagles, finally a little good news for a program that has had too much bad news the last couple years.

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