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Scanning the Nation Notebook Dec. 19 – On the Big 12, Stephen F. Austin, New Mexico State, LSU and more

December 19, 2017 Columns No Comments

Taking a look across the country late in December, as many have moved past final exams now and conference play nears…

It looks like we’re right back to where we’ve been with the Big 12. League teams have been awesome cleaning up in non-conference play (all but Kansas State has at least one top-50 RPI win, and even Oklahoma State beat Florida State in a near-road game), yet there’s no standout team or teams besides Kansas that one can point at as so much as a Sweet 16 favorite, much less the Final Four. (We’re still holding on Oklahoma…for now, even acknowledging how white-hot the Sooners have been offensively.)

It really would be nice, though, for conferences like this to play more than SEVEN true road games out of conference so far. That’s SEVEN out of 103, and includes Oklahoma beating Wichita State in the Shockers’ home city, but what is not their home arena and is not nearly as intimidating a surrounding as Koch Arena. The thing is, too, the league’s record in neutral court games (a more-than solid 22-8) indicates it would win its share of those road games too. But when leagues like this are so good at building up records and, therefore, power ratings through home-intensive and road-elusive scheduling, there always will be some skepticism and wondering if November and December success can translate to March.

More notes…

  • We’re comfortable saying it: Stephen F. Austin is back. The Lumberjacks looked the part in their 83-82 win at LSU on Saturday, more than capable of matching up with SEC talent, and looked much like they did during Brad Underwood’s three-year run that included a pair of NCAA Tournament wins. Underwood’s spread motion offense patented at SFA is mostly gone in favor of more side-to-side swinging of the ball and attacking the basket, but the Jacks are still aggressive offensively and especially on defense, still denying everywhere, pressuring point guards and ready to trap just about anywhere. SFA is forcing an incredible 23 turnovers per game early on, and is only a five-point loss at Mississippi State from being undefeated heading into its facing its third SEC opponent of the season in Missouri on Tuesday.
  • LSU has undoubtedly received an energy injection with Will Wade coming on as coach, but the Stephen F. Austin game showed the Tigers have a long way to go yet to play defense like Wade’s VCU teams did. Hands not up, missed rotations, confusion on ball screens-LSU was what its less-than impressive numbers say it was. Fortunately, the Tigers have been very efficient offensively, hitting over 52% from the field and with four players averaging in double figures even with Brandon Simpson still sidelined from an ankle injury.
  • Have to say it: players that wear wristbands just look like better jump shooters. LSU’s Tremont Waters wears one (on his left wrist). We’d be infinitely more on board with this if it became a fad than the awful trend of players wearing tights. Ugh…
  • Florida State took care of business beating Charleston Southern on Monday, but the Seminoles were pummeled on the glass by the Buccaneers 39-26. Some of that was because FSU played a bunch of 2-3 zone in the game, but still…yikes.
  • Among Midwestern conferences, there was talk this summer that the Horizon League might be a better league than the Missouri Valley this year. Not only is it not close to the case, but the Horizon is a miserable (29th) in the conference RPI as we’re now past mid-December, ahead of only the Big South, SWAC and MEAC. Goodness. The league has certainly been hurt badly by injuries and eligibility issues (Oakland, Illinois-Chicago) in the short term, and the effects of the transfer epidemic plus severe coaching turnover have clearly taken their toll as well.
  • It’s become pretty clear that Wichita State has received the full reverse of its perceived mistreatment by the NCAA selection committee the last two years, as the Shockers early on benefitted from being mildly overrated due to the undying affection for so-called advanced statistics by quite a few in the sport. We can attest from seeing them in person at Arch Madness the last couple years: Wichita State is legit. The Shockers play hard, hustle, shoot it incredibly well, and no one develops a bench better than Gregg Marshall. But we haven’t been sold on the Shockers as a top-three team at any time this season, and losses now to Notre Dame (which hasn’t exactly lit up the world since beating WSU) and good-but-not-great Oklahoma in a mostly home game support that. As efficiency statistics have been in vogue for a number of years now, most should know by now that every year there are a couple teams that run up crazy stats when they’re winning but that it doesn’t always translate to wins in stickier situations or against the best competition, and to a degree that has been the case with the Shockers, who we noted before the season had a 4-8 record the last two years in games decided by six points or less. It’s not that Wichita State can’t be a top-10 team, but we’re holding in a wait-and-see pattern. More than most, it seems.
  • Siena is just 3-8, but the Saints have some quality freshmen and shouldn’t be counted out in the wide-open Metro Atlantic yet. Prince Oduro and Roman Penn in particular give the team a talented post and an electric point guard who should both only continue to get better, and if they stick around for four years the program should be in good hands. Oduro is particularly valuable as Jimmy Patsos long has preferred to work through the post offensively, and he’s a shot-blocking presence too, while Penn already looks like a veteran running the point on a team that is starting three frosh. The freshman year wall is always a possibility, but Siena still could contend in a MAAC that has no definitive favorite, and the Saints do once again host the MAAC tourney in March.
  • Stanford is just 6-6 after dropping games to the likes of Eastern Washington, Long Beach State, Ohio State and Portland State, but it’s not for lack of performance from Reid Travis. The junior has become an unapologetic bull inside, pure muscle averaging 22 points per game on a young team. The Cardinal had a very-welcome 12-day break from games after losing to Long Beach State, and we’d still expect Stanford to contend for breaking even in the Pac-12.
  • We know for fact from the last couple years how hard it is with the current NCAA selection committee for about three-fourths of Division I to get any kind of fair shake at an at-large bid. But if a team wants to have any shot of contending for a bid from outside the top 7-8 conferences or so, it has to take care of business at home. Teams like Florida Gulf Coast and Missouri State have some inexplicable home losses that not only will likely vanquish any chance they might have had at an at-large, but also will hurt the chances of fellow conference teams, too, especially in the case of the Bears.
  • The Ivy League has taken some lumps in the non-conference season, with injuries (Yale), youth (Harvard, Princeton) and tough schedules (all three) resulting in its current Big 3 all with losing records. (On the other hand, give a call to Penn for its 8-4 mark and especially for the Quakers’ 80-72 win at Dayton last week) Don’t count out any of these teams yet, though. Harvard and Princeton have shown they’re close-the Tigers have been in every game except their blowout at Miami (Fla.), and the Crimson gave Kentucky a run on the road-while Yale is getting healthier and hopes to have Mikai Mason back soon. Harvard’s length and athleticism will play better in the Ivy League, too.
  • We’ve really liked that UNC Greensboro team the last couple years, so it didn’t surprise us much when the Spartans went and won at North Carolina State on Saturday. If you haven’t seen UNCG, Francis Alonso is a terrific guard-one who can hit a big shot at any time-and the Spartans also have length and athleticism one typically wouldn’t associate with a Southern Conference team. James Dickey, Marvin Smith and Kyrin Galloway are high-caliber athletes up front, and Dickey is a legit shot swatter averaging 2.5 blocks per game. The Spartans lost a close one at Wake Forest and by 12 at Virginia; otherwise, their only loss came at the buzzer against Presbyterian.
  • By the way, we mentioned Iowa State and BYU being among the most improved teams in the country from the start of the season. Another candidate is Wake Forest, which has run off six straight since a 1-4 start, including-gasp!-road wins at UNC Charlotte and Coastal Carolina. The schedule has hardly been brutal, but it still includes the kind of games the Demon Deacons were losing earlier in the season. Keyshawn Woods has taken on an even bigger role in support of Bryant Crawford, and Wake has been receiving periodic excellent play from 7-foot-1 Doral Moore, who still can become more consistent. One thing in the Deacs’ favor: they are an excellent foul-shooting team (77.0%).
  • Given that New Mexico State is on its third coach in three years and also has a run of seven NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 11 years, it’s saying something that this year’s Aggies may be the best team in this latest stretch of success for a program that historically has had a lot of it. Zach Lofton has seemingly played for more teams than a baseball middle reliever, but the grad transfer is the lead offensively with 19.5 points per game for the 9-2 Aggies, and he scored 23 in NMSU’s win over Illinois in a pairing of former coach Lou Henson’s two most prominent coaching stops. New Mexico State still isn’t a great-shooting team from outside-it rarely has been-but the Aggies have dudes who can get a bucket, with Jemerrio Jones, A.J. Harris, Sidy N’Dir and Eli Chuha also very capable. Harris had 16 in the win over Illinois, and Jones is a double-double machine (seven this season).
  • On that note-wow, is the upcoming Diamond Head Classic going to be an opportunity for some teams to make a name. Miami (Fla.) and USC are the headliners in this year’s field (and perfectly positioned to meet in the final if they can get there), but New Mexico State, Davidson, Middle Tennessee State, Princeton and even host Hawaii are more than capable of making it to the final and winning the whole thing. Shoot, reloading Akron might be considered the weakest link in the field, and even it is off to a 6-2 start and has a win over the IPFW team that just beat Indiana.
  • The Zips also have one of the breakout performers of this season. Daniel Utomi averaged 4.8 points per game last year coming off the bench as a freshman for Keith Dambrot. This year under first-year coach John Groce, Utomi is averaging 20.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and is shooting 50% from three-point range while making four triples per contest. With growth like that, Akron is still a legitimate contender in the Mid-American Conference, which has had a serviceable non-conference season (quite a few wins, but not many of much substance) but has no clear-cut favorite.
  • Finally, we’ve enjoyed participating in the Rockin’ 25, a top 25 college hoops poll for KMMX FM 100.3 in Lubbock, Texas, along with several other enjoyable independent college hoops folks. You can check out the poll and those of us voting on it here.


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