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Scanning the Nation January 17, 2017: notes from across college hoops

January 17, 2017 Columns No Comments

We’re well past the turn of the new year now, settled firmly into conference play, and around-the-clock talk of bracketology and Joe Lunardi on ESPN 25 hours a day is just around the corner (in the rare case with that network, this is not a bad thing-there’s never enough of Affable Joe in February and March). Here are some notes from around college basketball:

 

  • We don’t normally go for hot takes, only sometimes for predictions or statements, but we’ll try this one on for size: North Carolina against Florida State just might have been a Final Four preview. The Tar Heels are obviously that good. But so are the Seminoles.
  • With upper division Big Ten teams now losing to Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State on more than a one-off occasional basis, this is a good time to remind all that Albany, Gardner-Webb, George Mason and Nebraska-Omaha proved capable of beating these teams-all on the road, not a single one at home-on more than an occasional basis in non-conference season. Point being one more time, the differences between conferences are not nearly as great as TV networks and even the NCAA selection committee wants you to believe. File that away for March, when the selection committee barely gives an at-large sniff to a league champion from the No. 9 or 10 ranked conference with a 16-2 league mark, so it can squeeze in, say, team No. 7 from the Big 12 or Big Ten.
  • It’s been a couple years now that Louisville has been in the ACC, but just still don’t get that excited about the Cardinals playing conference games against teams like Duke or North Carolina. Sorry. Louisville will always belong in a conference with regional schools like Cincinnati and Memphis, and no amount of football money will change that.
  • The Missouri Valley Conference player of the year award trophy is named after Larry Bird, which should tell one all they need to know about the prestige of the award in this ancient conference of more than 100 years of age. So there may be no better compliment for Illinois State guard Paris Lee than this: he is playing at an MVC player of the year level this season. Lee has always been a pesky defender and solid backcourt starter, but this year with his improved shooting he-along with rising star MiKyle McIntosch-is a big reason the Redbirds look like they’ve taken the next step to serious conference championship threat.
  • Wichita State may have lost to Illinois State to drop behind the Redbirds in the MVC for now, but point guard Daishon Smith is shooting 88% from the free throw line this year. That’s one heck of a valuable trait to have in a primary ballhandler at the end of games.
  • Oklahoma State has come back to earth in Big 12 play, and it has to be agonizing just how close the Cowboys are to a much better record. Four of its seven losses are by seven points or less, three by four or less. One thing that has hurt OSU all season is turnovers, and turnover margin to be specific. The Cowboys commit their share of turnovers themselves, but their pressure defense forced plenty of mistakes in non-conference games. In Big 12 play, though, teams are averaging just 11 TO/game.
  • Yes, Xavier is struggling to a degree, but it’s still way too early to stress out about the Musketeers’ NCAA Tournament resume in mid-January. Especially in a league as good as the Big East, where solid win opportunities abound. At worst, X may have a resume that doesn’t sparkle, but it should be solid enough for a 7, 8, 9 seed. They do have to pick 68 teams, after all.
  • Saint Mary’s getting blown out in the second half at Gonzaga brings up a dirty little secret in this “advanced” metrics age that is so often forgotten or conveniently ignored: sometimes teams that post out-of-sight efficiency numbers against lesser or even equal competition don’t come close to duplicating those numbers against the best teams. It’s the reason why a team like Pittsburgh seemed to annually be in the top 15-20 in efficiency rankings in recent years under Jamie Dixon, yet just as annually crashed out of the NCAA Tournament early. We’re hopeful the Gaels really are the top 20 team they look like so often, and part of us almost wants to put a small asterisk next to Saturday night’s result due to the foul trouble Jock Landale seemed to spend the entire game in. But this was not a great showing.
  • That said, make no mistake: Gonzaga is good. As in, top-5 good. Schedule or not. The WCC, like most years, isn’t as bad of a conference as it will be made out to be the next two months (teams like San Francisco and Santa Clara are much improved). If the Zags are wiping them out regularly by 20 points, that says something, more than most will ever understand.
  • Richmond is really coming on in the Atlantic 10, and we’re seeing it again: the Spiders’ Princeton offense is a beauty to watch when it’s clicking. And it is now. This is a different team right now from the one that blew some opportunities in December (the types of missed chances that may seriously haunt the A-10 come NCAA tourney bid time, by the way).
  • Also in the A-10 and staying in Richmond…not sure many understand just how much Will Wade is getting out of this VCU team. The Rams are seriously shorthanded in the frontcourt, with just three players taller than 6-6, and one taller than 6-7 (Abdul Hamdy at 6-9). Yet Virginia Commonwealth had won eight straight to move to 14-3 before a loss at Davidson Saturday. It just shows that the pressure style of Havoc can go a long way when players like JeQuan Lewis, Justin Tillman, Doug Brooks and others are hustling all over the place.
  • Those following closely in Milwaukee likely can tell you all about this, but for others nationally thinking about a Marquette run to the NCAA Tournament, the fear is the team’s thinness inside is going to be just too much to overcome. Exhibit A: Luke Fischer had two points and one rebound (plus two blocks) in the Golden Eagles’ come-from-ahead loss to Butler on Monday, and that was from the team’s far-and-away top post option. If the Golden Eagles do get there, it’s going to take the kind of consistently great play from their guards that, while shown in repeated glimpses, hasn’t been in evidence in full yet this year.
  • Few teams may have ever needed a win more than New Mexico did its 84-71 win at Colorado State. Of course, in true Lobos fashion this year, the game was overshadowed to an extent afterwards, this time by an altercation in the parking lot after the game between UNM assistant (and former Texas star) Terrence Rencher and CSU player Emmanuel Omogbo. For Craig Neal’s sake, here’s hoping the Lobos stabilize and make a run at the Mountain West title yet. No one wants to see a coach struggle, and unquestionably it’s been a tough year in Albuquerque.
  • Then again, if a team did need a win more than the Lobos, it may have been Ohio State on Sunday. Sure enough, the Buckeyes upended Michigan State 72-67. Chalk this one up as much to OSU being the more desperation team, though the Spartans also have clearly not found anything resembling dominance in a Big Ten that is all over the place right now anyway.
  • By the way: Northwestern and TCU are great stories, and we would be glad to see them in the NCAA Tournament-if they earn it. There should be no sympathy points awarded for these programs, and this should go without saying. Except there sure looked like there were three years ago with Nebraska, which rode a few high-profile Big Ten wins and a good league record against a very friendly unbalanced schedule to an NCAA bid, when the Huskers’ overall profile screamed NIT. Both the Horned Frogs and Wildcats played what by the end will shake out as very light non-conference schedules, and they should need at least 10-11 conference wins to overcome those.
  • That race in the CAA is some kind of fun. We haven’t even hit February, and UNC Wilmington, College of Charleston and Northeastern are in a drag race for the top spot in this league. Add in their unique styles of play-UNCW pressures everywhere and plays fast, Charleston slows pace on both ends, Northeastern runs pretty motion offense-and this is as good of a league race as you’ll find this year.
  • Like so many other sports, college basketball is a copycat sport, and it’s kind of humorous how so many teams have suddenly discovered the 2-for-1 at the end of halves, in their continued lovefest with NBA play. The 2-for-1 has been available to coaches since the shot clock was adopted; it shouldn’t have needed a 30-second shot clock for coaches to suddenly all go for it. It has been nice to see coaches suddenly rediscover offense; that said, here’s something else about the 2-for-1: it’s sometimes overrated. The focus should be on good shots, not quick shots. As an example, Kansas against Oklahoma State rushed up court, scored, but then had a whole three seconds left for a final possession if the Cowboys ran the clock down (they did). That’s not worth the rush…unless the first part of the 2-for-1 goes in.
  • USC Upstate is another on the list of teams that has made a very nice comeback this year. The Spartans at 12-8 have already surpassed their win total from all of last year, an ugly 10-22 campaign that included a drop from contender status to a tie for the basement in the Atlantic Sun. We should’ve known ol’ veteran coach Eddie Payne would get Upstate back on track; after all, he is the same coach who took this fledgling Division I program to 24 wins and victories over teams like Georgia Tech and Mississippi State two years ago. The Spartans have a regular double-double threat in Michael Buchanan, one of a number of young players who have grown up this year after a tough season a year ago.
  • Texas-Arlington got off to a slow start as Kevin Hervey returned from an ACL injury, then won 11 straight, then had two straight puzzling performances in losses at Texas State and Troy. One thing about the Mavericks: they have not been as good of a rebounding team as a year ago, when they were plus-8.4 on the glass and ranked 12th in the country in rebound margin and third in offensive rebounds per game. This year? UTA is 87th in rebound margin, 110th in offensive boards. The Mavs did return to their offensive board-bouncing ways with 16 in a win Monday over South Alabama, though the Jaguars also pulled down 15 of their own.
  • George Mason’s Marquise Moore is an outstanding rebounder-one of the nation’s leaders-as a 6-foot-2 guard, and has rightfully received a good deal of attention for it lately. Another guard who is not big but does an excellent job on the glass is Wright State’s Justin Mitchell, a 6-4 sophomore who is averaging 7.5 boards per game. Mitchell is not as good of a scorer as Moore and also is not a three-point shooter, just like Moore. He is somewhat of a point guard by default for the Raiders in Scott Nagy’s first year, but has done a more-than credible job for a team that is a surprising 12-7 overall and is very competitive in the Horizon League.
  • Doug Sherman got a promotion at ESPN and is doing regular play-by-play work for the network, so it’s good to see he’s still calling MAAC games on Friday night’s. Sherman has been a staple on MAAC broadcasts for 20 years now, and he’s such a veteran with the league that it doesn’t feel like a MAAC game without him. His call of Rider against Manhattan on Friday was the work of a veteran who knows the league inside and out.
  • It’s also cool seeing Bacari Alexander on the sidelines for Detroit Mercy, the school that perpetually seems to alternate every few years between wanting to be known as Detroit and Detroit Mercy (the school’s actual name). Alexander was a tough guy on some terrific Titans teams under Perry Watson in the late 90s. And that was some kind of rivalry game Detroit won over Oakland Friday night, a 2-14 team defeating a 14-3 team, on the road, in front of a
  • One other MAAC note: still get the feeling the MAAC tourney final in Albany could have Manhattan or Siena-or maybe both. The Jaspers have made runs at the end of the season before, and the Saints are too talented and will have homecourt advantage in Albany. (In fact, Siena already seems to be putting it together, having won three straight to move within a game and a half of first place). Enjoy the MAAC regular season for the surprises (Canisius, Rider), but don’t be shocked if the conference tourney if the league tourney also provides a lot of funky seeds winning games.

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