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The Morning Dish – Friday, November 17, 2017

November 17, 2017 The Morning Dish No Comments

We may be barely a week into the college basketball season, but it’s not hard to make an argument that a number of teams and conferences just might be already entering the most important 7-10 days in their regular seasons.

It’s completely counter intuitive, and it probably shouldn’t be the case for a number of reasons. And no one will argue that conference play and conference tournaments are the heart of any team’s schedule if you were to ask any coach. For schools like Illinois State and Hofstra and leagues like the Missouri Valley and Colonial Athletic Association, though-to name just a couple of many-this has become a critical time of the year, as it is far and away the best time to earn wins over bigger-name (read: football-dominated) schools, the kind that help build power ratings and might get the attention of a certain tournament selection committee in March.

With top programs and conferences becoming ever more intent on colluding to avoid scheduling schools outside their exclusive country club, early season tournaments have become easily the best option-some might say just about the only one now-for those outside the TV Conferences circle to make some noise. They also have taken on increased importance because of their rarity, as with so few chances at these teams after this point, it’s very possible that teams’ and leagues’ performances in them now could be used for or against them when NCAA tourney selection comes in March.

A team like Illinois State knows all about a perceived lack of quality wins costing it a spot in the NCAA Tournament. As such, the Redbirds’ 69-65 win over South Carolina on Thursday in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off quarterfinals was an important step, one with national cachet coming over a Final Four team this past spring, and also one over a team from a Southeastern Conference that has been excellent in the early going and thus should pay off all year long.

Illinois State is a far, far different team from a year ago. Four starters departed the Redbirds, including two via grad transfers, and ISU also has been hit by a rash of injuries before the season. Dan Muller’s team had just eight healthy scholarship players for its opening 98-87 loss at Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday.

The Redbirds weren’t good defensively against FGCU, but they were against South Carolina, using a sticky 2-3 zone that limited the Gamecocks to 29.5% shooting. Add in 18 points from Saint Louis transfer Milik Yarbrough and 17 from blossoming sniper Keyshawn Evans, and ISU posted a win it and the Missouri Valley Conference can be proud of, continuing the conference’s good start through one week with a 19-3 record including six wins at road or neutral sites. Just as important, the Birds also now get a chance to play a Boise State team that is expected to be near the top of the Mountain West, and also will face either a Big 12 (Iowa State) or AAC (Tulsa) team, of which wins against also could only help an MVC team in the ratings and in perception.

Hofstra wasn’t on the NCAA bubble last year and would be a major surprise if it were this year, but it still struck a blow for the CAA with a big 72-69 win over Dayton in the Charleston Classic quarterfinals. Eli Pemberton scored a career-best 27 points off the bench for the Flying Dutchmen…er, Pride. It’s the type of win a CAA needs if it has any intentions of putting up a team worthy of at-large selection in March, and Hofstra now gets a chance at an ACC team (Clemson) in the tourney semis, and will also play either Temple of the AAC or Auburn of the SEC. Other than a game against Villanova in December, these are easily the best chances for notable victories the Pride will have all season.

Opportunities taken advantage of now can breed more opportunities, at least for a short time. They also can be painful when chances are missed. The Atlantic 10 is missing a lot of chances early on, whether it be coming up just short in game efforts on the road at Louisville and Nevada earlier this week, or now with Dayton losing early in Charleston, costing the Flyers the chance at those same teams Hofstra now could face. At least the league got one back when Saint Louis posted a very surprising 77-71 win over Virginia Tech at Madison Square Garden in the 2K Classic semifinals, setting up the Billikens with a shot at Providence (a 77-70 winner over Washington in the other semi) in the championship game.

Leagues like Conference USA and the MAC also saw golden chances slip away in Charleston as Old Dominion’s furious comeback against Temple fall short (a 76-65 final score was in no way indicative of how close ODU was to completing a rally from 19 down) and Ohio came up short in an 81-76 loss to Clemson. Again, these are only one game in the course of the season, and winning such games only goes so far if teams like them slip up soon after, but the opportunity missed is one that will form rankings and perceptions of those teams and their leagues throughout the season.

It’s not necessarily right, and it’s not particularly fair. In the sport’s current climate, though, it’s the way it is.

We’d like to see teams in leagues like the Atlantic 10, CAA and MVC-and, frankly, just about any other league-become more open to scheduling a quality non-conference game or two later in the season, in late January or February, to give them some kind of crack at a good win and some attention late in the season.

At the present, though, those games aren’t happening. Thus, contests played before the calendar has even turned to December take on an increased importance. Which means when a team like Louisiana-Lafayette has a rare chance at a team like Iowa next week in the Cayman Islands Classic, it’s almost a must-win for the Ragin’ Cajuns and the Sun Belt Conference. In November.

Side Dishes:

  • The Gavitt Tipoff Games started out heavily in the Big Ten’s favor, but the Big East has come roaring back to lead 4-3 with one game left Friday (DePaul/Illinois). Xavier won the type of appealing matchup that epitomizes this event, taking down Wisconsin 80-70 on the road in Madison. Trevon Blueitt scored eight straight points late, including a go-ahead three-pointer with 1:47 left in the game, part of his 25 as the Musketeers earned a gut-check win against a Badgers team that, to what should be the surprise of no one, is likely much better than expected coming into the year. Also, St. John’s blew out Nebraska 79-56 in what was easily this event’s least-interesting matchup, but one that also showed the Johnnies are on the right track.
  • Other than Musketeers and Badgers, maybe the best game of the night was in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where Belmont earned a nice road win by toppling Middle Tennessee State 69-63. The Bruins had a 14-point second half lead, saw the Blue Raiders rally with a 20-2 run-but then fought back, holding MTSU to five points in the final 6:24. Amanze Egekeze scored 24 and had six three-pointers, proving again you never know who will heat up for Belmont, which has had a great week with wins over in-state foes Vandy and Middle now, and would be 3-0 if it hadn’t slipped up late after leading virtually the whole way in its opener at Washington.
  • Boise State’s 58-56 win over Texas-El Paso in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (moved to Conway, S.C., and the campus of Coastal Carolina after the effects of Hurricane Maria on that island) has to be mentioned for the Broncos’ improbable rally, and/or the Miners’ incredible collapse. UTEP came back from a 12-point deficit early in the second half and led by nine with three minutes left, but the Miners seemed to go into a prevent offense. Boise hit a couple threes, and then Chandler Hutchison-the Broncos’ star who had a miserable game most of the way, hitting 1 of his first 12 shots-got free for a dunk due to a botched defense to cut it to one with :13 left. UTEP missed the front of a one-and-one, and Hutchison scored and was fouled on a driving layup with three seconds left, giving Boise State a steal of a win, and the Miners a frustrating loss.
  • Utah drilled Missouri 77-59, sending the Tigers to their first loss in their first road game. Mizzou shot just 34.6%, including an awful 5-for-27 from three-point range. The Tigers’ talented freshmen were largely silent in this one, and the silence speaking loudest was Michael Porter again out with an injury that is starting to become of concern with its mysterious nature.
    North Carolina State trailed Presbyterian 44-36 at halftime, but the Wolfpack came back in the second half to dismiss the Blue Hose easily 86-68 and move to 4-0. Lennard Freeman notched a career-best 23 points. Kevin Keatts already has the Pack turning up the heat defensively-13 steals and a total of 22 turnovers forced.
  • On a night once again with too many guarantee games, Iowa had a lot of trouble with Grambling State, finally putting the Tigers away for an 85-74 win. Jack Nunge and the free-throw line saved the Hawkeyes; Nunge scored 17 off the bench, and Iowa finished with a 36-6 advantage in free throw attempts.
  • Holy Cross continues to have Harvard’s number. The Crusaders have won four straight over the Crimson, the latest a 73-69 win in Worcester. Patrick Benzan scored a career-high 18. Don’t forget about Bill Carmody’s team in the Patriot League this year; Holy Cross always seems to sneak up when not expected.

Today’s Menu:

  • ESPN tourneys in Charleston and Myrtle Beach continue early in the morning, starting with South Carolina against UTEP in a consolation bracket game (10:30 a.m. Eastern, ESPNU). Auburn and Temple meet in a Charleston semifinal in the morning, too (11 a.m., ESPN2), and a busy day also includes Illinois State against Boise State (1 p.m., ESPN2) and Iowa State against Tulsa (7 p.m., ESPNU) in Myrtle Beach, plus Clemson facing Hofstra in Charleston (9:30 p.m., ESPNU).
  • The Bahamas Showcase opens with some intriguing games. Vermont takes on Bradley from the Missouri Valley, and later in the day Weber State meets Iona.
  • The Paradise Jam is another tourney relocated from the Virgin Islands, with Liberty serving as host. The Flames welcome Mercer for what is easily the best first-round matchup. Also, Wake Forest-off to a 0-2 start-takes on Drake, a distinct second-division MVC team but one dangerous enough to bite the Demon Deacons.
  • Outside of tournaments, a big one is Virginia at VCU (4 p.m., CBSSN), one of the better contrasts of styles you’ll see all season, and then combined with the frenzied Rams crowd should make this terrific.
  • Stanford lost to Eastern Washington last time out, and now it hosts a dangerous Northeastern team.
  • Big names playing at home (as usual): Duke hosts Southern and Kansas is home against South Dakota State, while Kentucky welcomes reloading East Tennessee State (7 p.m., SEC Network).
  • Quality matchup in the East as Yale meets Albany, though one tainted some as the Bulldogs have lost Jordan Bruner for the season and Makai Mason is out for a while with a stress fracture diagnosed just before their opener last week.
  • The South has a number of solid pairings. Keep an eye on Georgia State at Mississippi, and UNC Asheville will try to knock off Vanderbilt on the road. Also: Fresno State is at Arkansas, as the Bulldogs try to slow down the Razorbacks after their red-hot start last weekend.
  • Always stubborn UC Irvine takes on Kansas State on the road.
  • Out west, New Mexico and New Mexico State renew their annual early-season home-and-home, and this one should be fun as Lobos coach Paul Weir returns to the school he led to the NCAA tourney in March.

Have a terrific Friday and a great weekend.


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