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Scanning the Nation: Notes from the first weekend of Jan. league play

January 9, 2017 Columns No Comments

It was a rather docile first full weekend of January, early in the conference portion of the college basketball season. Here are some quick hit notes from around the country, from A (Arizona) to…well, at least W (Western Illinois):

  • Sometimes the effect of a single player being out of the lineup is overdone, but early on it sure looks like Sindarius Thornwell’s return for South Carolina is a game-changer. Thornwell totaled 19 points, 11 rebounds and six steals in his first game back and then posted 16, seven and five in those categories Saturday in a 79-68 win against Texas A&M. We’re thinking the Gamecocks look good to emerge as the second- or third-best team in the SEC; in fact, mark down Jan. 18 and Feb. 21. That’s when Frank Martin’s team plays Florida.

  • Heaven knows there’s too much coach worship in college basketball, but it has to be said again: Sean Miller is doing one heck of a job with Arizona this year. The Wildcats are 15-2, and given the many roster uncertainties they’ve had, that’s incredible…
  • We may regret this later, but right now we’re jumping with two feet onto the Memphis bandwagon, and that 80-59 win at Tulane did nothing to make us think otherwise. Tubby Smith is doing one terrific job this year, and it wouldn’t surprise us at all if the Tigers squeeze into the NCAA Tournament yet this year. Dedric Lawson is having an AAC player of the year-caliber season, and he and Markel Crawford are both vastly improved players…
  • Nevada has been involved in two of the very best regular season games of the last two seasons. Last year it was a one-point loss at Hawaii early in the season as part of ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon, a game that featured eight lead changes in the last two minutes. This year it was the Wolf Pack’s unreal comeback from 25 down with 11 minutes left in regulation to stun New Mexico on the road 105-104 in overtime. Nevada is getting some kind of production from a pair of Missouri Valley transfers, and Jordan Caroline (45 points) and Marcus Marshall combined for 71 against the Lobos…
  • The Big West is in a serious rebuilding year, but UC Irvine looks like a heavy favorite in the league now that it has Luke Nelson back. Nelson missed the Anteaters’ first 15 games with a hamstring injury, a stretch when UCI went 6-9, but he’s been back for a couple games now and Irvine has won three straight, including a dominating 84-56 victory over Hawaii on Saturday. It’s not just Nelson, though-Irvine is playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores on this year’s team, and they should continue to get better with more experience, as shown by their combining for 53 points against Hawaii…
  • Maybe it’s being charitable, but personally am inclined to give Grayson Allen the benefit of the doubt on Saturday’s little fender-bender with Boston College’s Connor Tava. Looked like it could’ve been a case of extracting oneself from contact on a screen, and it wasn’t a whole lot of contact even if it was intentional. Not going to overanalyze here every single thing the Duke guard does, but suffice to say for those who do that he’s put himself in that position…
  • Most have probably heard nary a peep about Western Illinois guard Garret Covington, but he’s been one of best unsung players in country for several years now. Also active on campus (he’s a member of WIU’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee and Student Government Association), he’s a model example of what NCAA Division I athletes can be, and it’s good to see his team having success as a senior. Class VP, etc. WIU is a surprising 3-1 in the Summit League after defeating Oral Roberts on Saturday…
  • Oakland’s win at Valparaiso on Friday was some kind of impressive, a sign that the Golden Grizzlies (gasp) just might be even better this year in the first year without Kahlil Felder. Martez Walker has been able to step up now and bewildered Valpo with a mix of three-pointers and left-handed hooks and leaners in the lane on his way to 25 points, and Xavier Hill-Mais is a much-improved player in the post. Also, analyst Mark Adams is right on: the Golden Grizzlies are a significantly improved defensive team so far. Oakland noticeably frustrated Crusaders star Alec Peters and had Valpo in general out of sorts with its gnat-like attacking of the ball…
  • Also in the Horizon League: Northern Kentucky is a very surprising 12-5 and 3-1 early in league play after an 83-75 win over Cleveland State on Saturday. John Brannen has guided the Norse in their upgrade from the Atlantic Sun to the Horizon and made this school from just outside Cincinnati competitive in a hurry…
  • It hasn’t taken Mid-American Conference teams long to engage in their annual ritual of devouring each other. Two games into conference play, just three teams remain undefeated (expected frontrunners Akron and Ohio, plus Toledo), while six teams are 1-1. The race between the Zips and the Bobcats for the East Division should be fun; Ohio is a team that won at Georgia Tech, while Akron is Akron, a 20-win generating machine that at 12-3 is well on its way to a 12th straight such season…
  • Don’t be fooled by Syracuse’s 11-point final margin over Pittsburgh: the game was never that close, and was a poster child for why the margin of victory should have no place in any ratings formulas heavily used by the NCAA selection committee. This was not a good impression right after Pitt had scored a big win over Virginia, and if the Panthers weren’t an ACC team, the way they lost would be remembered far more than the charitable 77-66 final score…
  • Creighton beating a bunch of people at home is one thing. The Bluejays going to Providence and winning convincingly-and after the Friars had topped Georgetown there to get some confidence back-is another. Well done…
  • It’s great to see how Northeastern has built on its win over Michigan State. The Huskies showed early in the season that they were capable of some very nice things when they won at Connecticut, and since beating the Spartans they’ve also won at Oakland and their first four CAA games, a seven-game winning streak at all. Bill Coen does an outstanding job with that program, and the sixth year of eligibility granted to Alex Murphy just in late September has been huge as well. The former Duke and Florida forward is averaging 14.7 points, giving Northeastern the size inside it needs to really make its motion offense go, and he and much-improved T. J. Williams (21.1 points per game) are both having outstanding seasons…
  • California needed that 74-73 win over USC Sunday night in a bad way. The Golden Bears had come up empty in a number of recent close games against good teams (Seton Hall, Virginia, Arizona) and were starting to profile as a team good enough to compete with anyone, but lacking that extra something to beat those teams…
  • Wichita State is still the favorite in the Missouri Valley, and deservedly so, but Illinois State is starting to look really good as the Valley’s No. 2. The Redbirds’ 19-point win at Indiana State on Saturday was impressive, and MiKyle McIntosh (career-high 31 points) continues to blossom, and seniors Deontae Hawkins and Paris Lee also have improved and are a combined 45.5% from three-point range. ISU must stay healthy-the Birds typically go eight deep-but it has the athleticism to again give Wichita State fits, which makes the two teams’ upcoming meetings Jan. 14 (at ISU) and Feb. 4 must-see…
  • Nebraska’s home loss to Northwestern seems to confirm our fears, that the Cornhuskers still have a ways to go, even as they picked up two very nice road wins in starting 3-0 in the Big Ten. It’s hard not to root for Tim Miles, widely regarded as a terrific guy and one of the great personalities in the sport. At the least, now, the Huskers have proven they are a team that must be paid attention to, especially with that backcourt including Glenn Watson and Tai Webster
  • In the tradition of UC Davis two years ago and Tennessee State last year, this year’s most unknown and unexpected turnaround is coming from Maryland-Baltimore County, which is a stunning 11-4 after beating Maine on Sunday. What UMBC is doing is almost unbelievable, as this is a program that won 11 games over the last two years combined and hasn’t won more than nine games in a season in each of the previous seven seasons, since 2008-09. A whole lot of credit goes to Ryan Odom, son of Dave Odom, best remember as the former coach at Wake Forest and South Carolina…
  • It’s looking like it might be a tough, tough year at Oklahoma. The Sooners are 6-8 now and 0-3 in the Big 12 after losing at Kansas State and have been without senior Jordan Woodard the last four games due to a leg injury. This was always a possibility; OU lost a whole lot off of last year’s team, more than just Buddy Hield, and it seemed many took a real leap of faith-even for a coach as accomplished as Lon Kruger-in thinking the Sooners were going to remain a top 25 regular…
  • After North Carolina beat N.C. State by 51 points…how did the Tar Heels lose to Georgia Tech and nearly lose at home to Tennessee? That’s just enough mystery to make it hard to pick UNC late in the NCAA Tournament, even if their ever-increasing total of 30, 40 and even 50 point wins are making an indelible mark…
  • Texas-Arlington has ascended to trendy pick status in the Sun Belt, but Louisiana-Lafayette bears watching too. The Ragin’ Cajuns are now 12-4 overall and posted an impressive destruction of Arkansas-Little Rock on the road last week. Bryce Washington-just 6-foot-6-is tied for the national lead in double-doubles and pulled down 21 boards in ULL’s 69-60 win over Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday. The Cajuns also have an experienced, take-charge guard in Jay Wright, and coach Bob Marlin is a winner. Don’t be surprised of this team comes out of the tough Sun Belt in March…
  • UNC Asheville under coach Nick McDevitt has become unquestionably one of most resilient programs in country. The Bulldogs keep losing star players to transfer to larger schools, seemingly leaving them depleted entering a season, yet they just keep winning. UNCA is off to an 11-6 start and, sure enough, has bounced back to win three straight in the Big South after a tough free-game losing streak at the end of December with three losses by a combined seven points, including a two-point loss at Ohio State…
  • Finally, two teams are 3-0 in the Ohio Valley early on. One is Belmont, to the surprise of absolutely no one. The other? Tennessee Tech, which went 2-11 against NCAA Division I teams out of conference but stayed undefeated with a 71-67 win over Murray State on Saturday. Though the Golden Eagles’ record doesn’t completely indicate their performance; Tech has just one loss of more than 15 points (by 19 points at Lipscomb) and was competitive in losses to Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Ohio, Southern Conference contender Furman, Southland favorite Sam Houston State and even Tennessee. Five straight losses by eight points or less preceded their current three-game winning streak.

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