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Scanning the Nation January 31, 2017: On Georgia Tech, Akron, New Mexico State and more

January 31, 2017 Columns No Comments

Notes from around the country as we close out January and get ready to hit the stretch run of the season and the back half of conference play…

-Maybe Georgia Tech’s hot play in the ACC is nothing more than Clemson 2016 redux, a team from near the bottom of the league getting hot for a time in part due to a friendly home schedule. Regardless, the Yellow Jackets’ resurgence has been nothing short of one of the best stories of this season. Center Ben Lammers is playing like a conference player of the year candidate-he’s been that good. Whether it was posting up, passing or blocking shots, the junior big man controlled GT’s eventual 62-60 win over Notre Dame on Saturday, even as Tadric Jackson was breaking out of a slump to score 25 points off the bench in a myriad of ways. Just as good of a story is the clear growth Josh Pastner has shown as a coach, shedding the dribble-drive offense tendencies of his Memphis teams and switching to a high-post based offense with a lot of movement to get the most out of this team. He’s absolutely a deserving candidate for ACC coach of the year honors…

-Even though UNC-Wilmington fell victim to one of William & Mary’s every-so-often devastating offensive displays on Saturday to see its nine-game winning streak snapped and drop to 20-3, it can’t be noted enough just what an amazing job this team is doing with very little size and with being a team that so focuses on jump shots. Between its lack of size and the fact that the team relies on jump shooting so much (something that bit UNCW in the loss Saturday and in a loss at Clemson earlier), the Seahawks shouldn’t even be close to a serious at-large candidate for the NCAAs. Like VCU, though, this is another team that shows just how far a team can go by just playing its tails off, forcing a ton of turnovers and capitalizing on them. It’s a team that’s a blast to watch and similar to when VCU is playing in March, the NCAA Tournament will be a better event if the Seahawks are in it…

-As much as the Mountain West has become almost a punch line this year with its unpredictability and the struggles of many of its highest profile programs, this much is a given: Nevada’s Cameron Oliver is a man inside. Oliver is 6-foot-8 but plays even bigger, is athletic, rebounds and blocks shots. (He even can shoot the three, though we’d prefer he spent a little less time out by the arc) The Wolf Pack has a legit All-America caliber talent in the paint with him, and along with smooth-shooting Marcus Marshall it’s no surprise Nevada has emerged as the team to beat in the MWC…

-For all the bad trends that have developed with the designs on courts in recent years, must say the recent one of state schools putting an outline of their state at center court is a winner. It’s even better when the state outline doesn’t take up 2/3 of the court, like so many current logos do. (Hello: Kansas)…

-Sometimes it’s hard to believe Michigan has beaten teams like Marquette, SMU and Indiana this year-handily, but the Wolverines do have a player who looks like he could be a future star in D.J. Wilson. In fact, we’re honestly kind of surprised there hasn’t been more hype about the 6-foot-10 sophomore. One of the more improved players in the country, Wilson is still raw, but he can do a lot of different things. He’s the Go Blue’s leading rebounder and shot blocker, is a nice passer, has range beyond the three-point line, and continues to grow offensively. Against Michigan State on Sunday he looked like the Wolverines’ second-best player to Derrick Walton…

-Even as expectations were high coming into the season, Monmouth and Valparaiso are two teams that probably aren’t as good as they were last year, another example of just how damaging it is when the NCAA selection committee doesn’t get it right with its at-large selections and ignores teams like them. Both are still in the driver’s seat to win their leagues this year, though, and have plenty of pieces to win a game or two in the NCAAs, no doubt the biggest pieces being players who can take over a game in Justin Robinson (Monmouth) and Alec Peters (Valpo). Both are teams with the size and experience to win in March, though…

-It hasn’t gotten much attention, but Vermont in the America East is having one heck of a nice year. The Catamounts have won 10 in a row since a loss at Butler before Christmas, and their only losses have come to the Bulldogs, South Carolina, Providence, Houston (at the buzzer by one) and Northeastern (by two). UVM won at Albany last Wednesday and at Stony Brook on Sunday to pin losses on arguably their two biggest challengers, and at 8-0 in the A-East they are halfway to an unbeaten league mark. If so, Vermont will fulfill what-in our perfect world-would be a near automatic for qualification in the NCAA Tournament: a perfect mark in a double round-robin league where a team has played every conference opponent twice…

-If one wasn’t looking at the numbers, it was strange last week seeing Rhode Island in or on the fringe of many NCAA Tournament projections. Watching URI for the last two months, really don’t enjoy saying this, but just haven’t seen the Rams as an NCAA Tournament team. Injuries have undoubtedly played some part in that (Hassan Martin’s absence for a time in particular hurt). The Rams did play well in taking care of St. Bonaventure at home on Saturday, showing a renewed focus on punching the ball inside. The bigger takeaway, though, is probably this: every single year people say the bubble is “soft.” But this year it looks like it’s real. When teams like Clemson and Michigan State are not just in the field, but comfortably right now, it’s just another argument that the tourney wouldn’t be hurt one bit if it got back to 64 teams…

-Central Michigan is the MAC team that gets the most attention for scoring, what with the Chippewas hosting the nation’s leading scorer in Marcus Keene, but we’re not sure enough people understand just how good Akron has been at shooting the three the last three years. The Zips ranked second in the nation a year ago with 11.7 triples per game, and they’re down from that only slightly this year (10.7, 6th in the country). Before that, Keith Dambrot’s team ranked ninth nationally in the category in 2014-15. This year, Akron has literally six players who can shoot the three and shoot it well, one of them being intriguing 6-10 four man Kwan Cheatham, who also leads the team in rebounding. In fact, board work that has been the difference for the Zips this year from a year ago; Akron was somewhat surprisingly not a good team on the glass a year ago despite plenty of size, but this year carries a solid +4.3 rebound margin, second in the MAC. Akron is a quiet 18-3 this year and is still undefeated in conference play entering a Tuesday night date with Northern Illinois, and with their marksmanship and size (don’t forget big Isaiah Johnson in the post), the Zips are the definition of a team capable of springing some upsets in March…

-Always have enjoyed how Boise State runs its offense. The Broncos literally look like they’re in fast-forward on every possession, especially early in games-always cutting, always slashing, always attacking quickly, yet under control…

-Saturday’s Wisconsin/Rutgers game at Madison Square Garden, in addition to hosing the Scarlet Knights out of a home game, also drew just over 8,500 people. So much for the Big Ten capturing that New York market. It was probably only fitting for the conference that the game was nearly unwatchable, saved only by a superb effort by Ethan Happ (32 points) in the Badgers’ 61-54 win, a score only pumped up by a five-minute overtime after the teams were tied 45-45 at the end of regulation.

-I don’t care if New Mexico State was playing in the old Great West Conference, that one-time Division I semi-conference that gathered together independents in something slightly more than a scheduling alliance-the Aggies’ 21-2 record-including a current 19-game win streak-is impressive. Paul Weir has done what many on the far outside thought was impossible-take NMSU to another level from where Marvin Menzies had built the program as a power in the WAC and a regular threat (if usually unsuccessful) in non-conference games. The schedule has not been as tough as the ones Menzies teams typically faced, but there are wins over Arizona State and New Mexico, and New Mexico State is noticeably improved offensively, an area where it wasn’t always the most dynamic in the past. Eli Chuha has done a solid job replacing Pascal Siakam and Ian Baker is one of the better guards in the West. A tough weekend awaits next weekend with trips to Cal State-Bakersfield and Grand Canyon, but win both and it’s not hard to imagine the Aggies could go into the NCAA Tournament with a 28-game winning streak…

-In addition to carrying on the great tradition of coaches who have earned doctorate degrees, following such longtime sideline men like Dr. Tom Davis and Dr. Glenn Wilkes, Lehigh coach Dr. Brett Reed has to be the best halftime interview in the sport, and it’s not even close. Most mid-point interviews during games on television are laborious at best, uncomfortable at worst. Reed is always insightful and thoughtful. And expressive. Between the hand gestures, head tilts and detailed analysis of the half, watch one of his interviews and it’s hard not to have a smile on your face…

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