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Scanning the Nation January 24, 2017: On Wake Forest, Tulsa, Bucknell and more

January 24, 2017 Columns No Comments

Notes from around college basketball as we are in the late stages of January and endless bubble talk is just around the corner:

A reminder that a basketball season is a journey and doesn’t always follow a linear path annually comes right around this time of year, when conference races have started to take form. Non-conference records are often a good indicator of which teams will be finishing where in their leagues, but not always. There is always a handful of teams that-for any number of reasons-plays much better in conference than it did out of its league.

On that note, Coastal Carolina, Drake, James Madison, North Florida, Siena, Texas-San Antonio and UC Riverside all can take a bow for overcoming rough November and December showings to become factors in their respective conference races. Some might think of them as sort of unwanted houseguests, for such teams are often a nightmare for conference administrators and league pacesetters hoping for a higher seed for their perceived best team, or more teams in the NCAA Tournament, but that’s not these teams’ problem. There’s something to be said about squads continuing to get better as a season progresses (North Florida, UTSA and many others), playing well while experimenting under an interim coach (Drake), or just living up to earlier expectations (Siena), and these teams have…

Vanderbilt has not risen high enough in the SEC standings to fall under that heading yet, but the Commodores’ 68-66 win at Florida on Saturday is the definition of an unwanted houseguest drop-in. The SEC needs its non-Kentucky teams like the Gators to keep winning, not losing to second-division clubs…

It’s probably uncouth to ever call an ACC team a surprise, lest they be viewed as questioning the almighty power of the conference, but Wake Forest has been a nice surprise and looks like it’s really close to doing some nice things, possibly even this year yet. John Collins has become a really good ACC player, and this is a team with literally six players who can shoot the three-pointer. If the Demon Deacons can stay right around .500 in the ACC (not an easy task), they’ve got a good chance of being in the NCAA Tournament…

Given how much he’s been (rightly) criticized for jumping ship on past programs right before they went on probation, is one allowed to say Frank Haith has done a pretty nice job coaching a team? Because he has this year at Tulsa. Haith put together an almost all-new squad this year-nine seniors departed from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Yet there the Golden Hurricane are, 11-7 overall and in the hunt in the American Athletic Conference, even after some early hiccups…

Bucknell’s win over Boston University on Saturday was the kind of hard-fought win that is the sign of a championship-caliber club, of which the Bison certainly are in the Patriot League, now leading the field by two games. Bucknell was staggering for more than 30 minutes after BU punched the hosts in the mouth early, frustrating them into turnovers against defensive pressure and building a halftime lead. The Bison was struggling from outside, missing eight of its first nine from three-point range, and star post Nana Foulland was being outplayed inside by the Terriers’ Justin Alston-another in a line of solid posts in this league-and BU continued to hold a lead well into the second half. The Bison weathered the storm, though, and were the tougher team down the stretch, finally taking the lead and eventually finishing a 70-59 win that was closer than the final score showed. Bucknell finally found its outside shot late, including three huge, backbreaking three-pointers late in the shot clock. It was a game Bucknell easily could’ve lost, but had to be satisfying…

Watching quite a few Middle Tennessee State games the last couple years, Edward Simpson has become a personal favorite player to watch among all in the country. If you’re looking to measure someone in glitzy numbers or even defensive antics, you’ll be disappointed: the 6-2 junior guard averages less than five points per game, plus 2.7 assists and 2.2 rebounds. But Simpson is very fundamentally sound, is an excellent, lengthy defender with a good base, is unselfish (like most every player on Kermit Davis teams), and he’s good enough to hit shots when he needs too (42.3% from three-point range), it’s just that he’s far more likely to reverse the ball on the perimeter to keep working for a shot or get it to prolific scorers like Giddy Potts, Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams than he is to jack one up. Best of all: Simpson carries a 3.7 grade point average in mechatronics engineering at MTSU, a major combining mechanical engineering, electronics and computer engineering…

Another enjoyable player to watch, for the discerning eye that focuses on more than points: Houston’s Wes VanBeck. Another 6-2 guard, VanBeck is a former walk-on who just received a scholarship this year. Frankly, he looks like a walk-on, reminiscent of a former Ohio State star from years back named Jay Burson (note to internet: he played before the internet), a boyish-looking, thin, less-than imposing player who nevertheless became a scoring machine in the Big Ten. VanBeck isn’t quite that kind of scorer-though he is averaging nearly nine points per game and is a 50% three-point shooter-but he resembles Burson in slight build and in how he throws his body around. He is completely fearless going to the basket or challenging players eight inches taller for rebounds and should be an inspiration for anyone the way he mixes it up inside. (Against Memphis, sure enough, there he was was attempting to grab a rebound over the back of guys like Dedric Lawson on one attempt.) College basketball-no, sports in general-will never have enough players who hustle and work as hard as VanBeck…

On the other side of the teams that pick it up in conference play are those that lose their way in league play, and Colorado is a poster child for it. Now we know how much the Buffaloes are struggling in the Pac-12: they lost at Washington and Washington State…

Maybe the most underrated conference race of all this year is in the Southern Conference, where there are five very good teams battling it out. Tennessee-Chattanooga was the heavy favorite entering the season with East Tennessee State not far behind, but the loss of versatile forward Chuck Ester was a blow to the Mocs. Moreover, UNC Greensboro is having a really good year, 16-5 overall and 7-1 in the SoCon. The Spartans are another team that can really shoot the three, and UNCG also has enough bangers down low to give it some balance. Of course, UTC and ETSU are still right there, but Furman is still a contender even after the loss of league player of the year Stephen Croone, and Samford is a good team too that gave Florida State a battle for a while earlier this year. Should be an exceptional conference tournament in Asheville…

Jackson State was expected to challenge for the SWAC title this year, but injuries have plundered a promising season for the Tigers. Paris Collins and Chase Franklin were the team’s top two scorers a year ago, but both are currently out. Franklin played in just four games this year before a shoulder injury sidelined him, while Collins has been out since Dec. 20 with a broken hand. In addition, forward Treshawn Bolden and guard Charles Taylor both were lost to season-ending injuries after playing in one game each, and in all four of the team’s five projected starters have missed significant time due to injury. It’s a tough break for a program that entering the season returned four starters from a team that won a first-round game in the CIT and had the looks of being ready to challenge the stranglehold Texas Southern and Southern have held on the SWAC…

Some can talk all they want about how a basketball team attempting three-pointers or layups is the only way to play, but we’ll add that it’s another thing: exceedingly boring. And much like the way baseball has become more tedious to watch because every player seems to hit a home run, strike out or walk, basketball will follow a similar path if analytics causes it to fall so far out of balance that it can’t appreciate that there are plenty of different ways to win a game. Just like there should be nothing wrong with teams passing the ball around and working to get a good shot (unfortunately, something that has been discouraged by the shorter shot clock as well as eliminating the five-second closely guarded call), there’s nothing wrong with passing up an open jump shot instead of barreling forward to take a heavily contested shot near the rim. If I’m an offensive player, I’ll take an open 17-footer over a contested layup every single day of the week, no matter what the percentages say…

Maybe recruits tell Louisville people that their uniforms are “lit,” or whatever other terms are fashionable now, but personally find it way too hard to watch the Cardinals on TV. For one; they’re excessively bland; for another, the jerseys are about impossible to read, and it’s a shame, because Louisville had a classic look for so many years. Like so many schools that sold their souls to adidas, though, they don’t have enough confidence in their own tradition to lean on it, and instead relegated themselves to a walking clothing experiment…

Few may have noticed, but Fordham quietly had a really good week. The Rams upended VCU in overtime and then won at Massachusetts to wreak some havoc (no pun intended…honest) in the Atlantic 10. Call us crazy, but kind of like the team Jeff Neubauer has. Fordham is capable of disrupting with its defenses, whether it be full court pressure, Neubauer’s 1-3-1 zone, or a 2-3 zone that pressures way out up top. Javontae Hawkins and Chris Sengfelder are a good place to start offensively, too. The Rams can’t rebound (a whopping -7.6 rebound margin this season, among the very worst in Division I), but clearly they’re good enough to be a pest in the A-10 race.

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