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Scanning the Nation Notebook for Feb. 8 – On Michigan State, bubbles, Loyola Chicago, Summit League & more

February 8, 2018 Columns No Comments

Notes, thoughts, numbers and more gibberish about the college basketball landscape post-Super Bowl and with Selection Sunday now just over a month away. The Big Ten, Summit League, regional TV and some hidden gems to watch in March are among our topics…

Michigan State may be winning games-almost silently, the Spartans are on a seven-game streak now-but the Spartans still concern us. There’s the turnovers, obviously, but just as much is the inconsistent halfcourt offense. MSU is still hustling the ball up the court after missed shots like it always has, but if it doesn’t convert (or turn it over), the Spartans too often suddenly look like Virginia or Northern Iowa on the offensive end, but without the Cavaliers’ results to show for it.

Barely defeating mediocre Big Ten fare like Iowa, Indiana, Maryland and Penn State also doesn’t say much. And no matter what people want to think, it sure looks to us like Miles Bridges has indeed regressed some this year. A player with his talent should be doing more than settling for jumpers, and in fact it’s almost mind-boggling to think a star player in a sport where putting the head down and throwing oneself at the hoop is increasingly rewarded by officials has shot just 80 free throws in 25 games. All that said, if there’s any team that can turn it on at the end of the season, it’s a Tom Izzo team. But between the turnovers and lack of offensive execution, this year’s Spartans don’t look much like an Izzo team…

It’s that time of year to talk bubbles and resumes on a regular basis. We don’t do bracket projections in season, just regular monitoring, but among our preliminary thoughts after watching Louisville and Syracuse and looking at their resumes…it’s hard to see how either of these teams is an NCAA Tournament squad right now. The Cardinals’ resume is particularly flimsy, not nearly as good as power ratings currently peg their rank at, while it’s hard to see how Syracuse at this point deserves a bid over a team like St. Bonaventure, which defeated the Orange at the Carrier Dome this year and still has much better road wins than the Cuse. Both teams have plenty of opportunities to change that, but at this point they look like products of advantageous, home-loaded non-conference schedules in leagues like the ACC, that allow teams to fatten up power ratings and receive outsized credit for it, no matter what rating one is looking at…

Along those lines, Nebraska has had a nice year, is a good story and is doing a good job taking advantage of a down year in the Big Ten. And unquestionably Tim Miles is one of the good guys in the sport. Let’s be honest, though: if one took the Cornhuskers’ profile, attached ‘Old Dominion’ to it and said its numbers were for a team from Conference USA instead of the Big Ten, the team’s at-large hopes even if it ran the table the rest of the regular season would be almost zero. In fact, we’re not so sure this year’s Old Dominion team couldn’t have posted the exact same record Nebraska has, and the Monarchs are nowhere near the NCAA Tournament bubble. (All that said, if the Huskers get to 25 wins and get in the field in a play-in game, there’s probably little to complain about, especially as we regularly advocate for teams in the field that have more wins & less losses)…

Another Big Ten note: Penn State’s Tony Carr may have rarely met a shot he didn’t like, but he sure is still fun to watch. Guilty pleasure or just good player, he along with Nebraska’s James Palmer have been bright spots this year in the league. And we’re honestly surprised that the Nittany Lions haven’t taken more advantage of the down year in the league, though another poor non-conference schedule should doom PSU if it gets anywhere close to the bubble late…

Grew up watching college basketball in the 1980s, no conference more than the Big East, and personally enjoy college hoops history as much as anyone…and have no clue why suddenly so many are worried about if the “old” Big East or “new” Big East is better, or even if it was better in its massive 16-team state just before imploding (the Middle East stage?).

As broadcaster Kim Adams noted correctly on Twitter, there should be no reason why people can’t enjoy and appreciate them both. And if they don’t, and if someone prefers the older version or the newer version better…there should be absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s another prime example of why sports debates in person are infinitely better than ones with character limits on social media. This should be a healthy, fun, good-natured comparison, not just another agitation to stoke people’s outrage addiction…

South Dakota and South Dakota State are the runaway leaders in the Summit League, and if either one makes the NCAA Tournament they are bound to be an entertaining and very, very dangerous entry in the tourney. SDSU is the better-known team, of course, with scoring machine Mike Daum, and the Jackrabbits have already proven their worth nationally this year with wins over the likes of Buffalo, Mississippi, Iowa and Drake. South Dakota is every bit as fun to watch though, too. The Coyotes have narrow losses at TCU and UCLA and also were competitive at Duke, and they recently disposed of South Dakota State by 19 in their first meeting this season.

Both teams also play very enjoyable styles with a ton of movement on offense and very little of the tiring pick-and-rolls with three players standing around (er…”spacers”) that dominate college basketball now. The Jackrabbits shoot and make a ton of threes, while USD isn’t as reliant on the three but still can shoot it, but also cuts hard, moves the ball and gets to the line a bunch. (The Coyotes are also the better team on the defensive end, playing excellent team defense, and head coach Craig Smith cracked us up with his regular stirring of the home crowd in the Coyotes’ home win over the Jackrabbits recently.) A bunch of schools at the level of these two would do well to take some offensive tips from both of these teams, and either one of these should be on your short list for potential bracket busters if they get in the NCAAs…

Buffalo is breezing through the Mid-American Conference so far, and the Bulls have firepower with four players averaging 13.8 points per game or better. C.J. Massinburg (17.8 ppg) and Nick Perkins (16.3 ppg off the bench, and watching this skilled basket-getting big guy play, let’s just say Perkins isn’t being brought into the game to pass) are just two of a number of players who have improved individually, even as three starters departed from a year ago.

It’s interesting to note that, in comparing the team to last year, statistically Buffalo isn’t a whole lot different from a year ago. The Bulls are playing faster, taking better care of the ball and are improved defensively, but they’re also not as good rebounding, foul too much and still are very perimeter-oriented and limited on the interior. Buffalo is still deservingly the best team in the MAC, but we’re not sure what it says about the rest of the league as a whole, especially as the conference has just two teams standing out from the pack (the Bulls and 9-2 Toledo) and the rest all stuck between 6-5 and 3-8 in conference. The MAC does rank a more-than respectable 11th in the conference RPI, and undoubtedly a team like Ball State or Kent State (which made a run in last year’s tourney to win it and is the only to knock off Buffalo so far) is capable of getting hot in March, but at this point the Bulls’ dominance is a little bit surprising from here…

We’re getting the same feeling watching both the Big 12 and SEC this year: either both leagues are going to dominate in the NCAA Tournament, or their many, many teams that get into the tourney will drop by the wayside one after the other early on. The number of teams in both leagues that can win big games on the road and then lose them at home can be perceived any way one wants, but it certainly shows some vulnerability even as it also shows the ability to grab big wins. Teams like Alabama, Kansas State, Missouri or Texas…any of them could win three games in the tourney, or lose in the first round…

If you want to watch a team that gets after it on defense, watch Wagner. The Seahawks under coach Bashir Mason are a lot of fun to watch on the defensive end. And this year, his team has some explosiveness offensively, which combined with D is making it the best team in the Northeast Conference. Wagner’s recent 91-61 win on the road at NEC contender St. Francis (Pa.) was one of the most impressive road performances you’ll see by a team all year, the Seahawks completely raining on the Red Flash’s first home appearance on ESPN in 27 years…

File away the name Cameron Krutwig for reference. He’s a 6-foot-9 freshman starting in the post at Loyola (Ill.), and he’s already as versatile as almost any big man in the country. Krutwig’s scoring numbers are somewhat modest but picking up (10.4 ppg), he shoots 57.0% from the field and 76.2% from the line, is a good rebounder (6.7 rpg), passer (nearly two assists per game) and even has 19 blocked shots. Krutwig in particular is a slick passer from the elbow or low post, and similar to teams in recent years like Northern Iowa with Seth Tuttle and Toledo with Nathan Boothe, the Ramblers can run their offense through a big guy. That a team that is already plenty good (20-5 overall, 10-3 and leading the Missouri Valley) is doing so with a freshman says a lot about just how good Krutwig is already…

Montana has blazed ahead of the pack in the Big Sky most impressively, fashioning an 11-0 conference mark while winning seven of those games on the road in a league where the travel is as tough as any. The Grizzlies are doing it with a mix of an outstanding backcourt (Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine average a combined 33.0 ppg), a low-post brute (Jamar Akoh) and disruptive defenses that change, pressure and trap seemingly at random. Off a ball screen, just past midcourt or in the backcourt-one never knows when or where the Griz will spring a trap on the court, and this will be a fascinating team in the postseason. Montana has enough depth inside to compete and has a couple guards who can score inside or out…

Also in the Big Sky, it just can’t be said enough how much individual scoring talent there is in this league. Montana had Akoh, Oguine and Rorie; Eastern Washington has Bogdan Bliznyuk, who practically toys with defenses and scored 40 in a win over Sacramento State last week. There’s Montana State’s Tyler Hall, Northern Colorado with Andre Spight (who scored 41 recently in a win over Montana State) and Idaho’s consistent Victor Sanders, and the two top scorers in the conference this year are comparably less-known-Weber State sophomore Jerrick Harding and Deontae North of Portland State. Harding in particular is shooting 55.2% from the floor as a 6-foot-1 guard, and has the Wildcats poised to challenge Montana if the Grizzlies’ slip up at all down the stretch…

It appears to us the latest trend in baseline out of bound plays is screens set for inbounders in the corner immediately after they pass the ball in. From our view it has worked more than a couple times, and if nothing else it’s good to see teams looking for ways to score off inbounds plays again. With all the scouting and video available now, many teams in recent years had resorted to minimal effort trying to score in the inbounds play, but it’s still worth the effort to try…

Fordham has one of oldest gyms in the country with the ancient Rose Hill Gymnasium. Seeing a video board on the scorer’s table with a shaking message telling fans (the few there) to make some noise…is just one of the more awkward things we’ve seen all season. Knowing the Rams have struggled for a long time in the Atlantic 10 and would do just about anything to shake out of their doldrums, and that there are spirited debates about whether Rose Hill is an appropriate facility for a competitive Division I program, it still seems a minimalist approach would make more sense for this 93-year old landmark of the sport…

As a hoops junkie who long has been willing to watch a game on television no matter how big or small it is and enjoys seeing what hidden gems they can find, it’s been disappointing to see so many less-exposed conferences eliminating their TV packages on regional networks that are accessible on DirecTV. The MAAC, America East and now CAA and NEC all once had robust regional packages, while the likes of the Atlantic Sun and Southern among others also used to be on much more than they are now. Some have found homes for games on national outlets (CBS Sports Network, ESPNU) but others have focused their efforts entirely on online streaming. In some cases, the changes have been necessitated by changing network commitments, too; in others they’ve been conference decisions to reallocate resources, as NEC associate commissioner Ron Ratner told us was the case for that league this year.

Fully realizing that some are now more than content watching games on a computer or phone, there are still presumably a good deal more who prefer watching games on a big screen in the comfort of home. Moreover, there would seem to be more exposure benefit to being on a regional network for channel flippers or in sports bars than online. (As we mentioned in an email exchange with Ratner, last year’s NEC Tournament was an absolute gem that we almost certainly never would’ve watched without the benefit of TV and DVR). Obviously there are a multitude of financial considerations for conferences, and we are fully cognizant that us junkies/hoops wackos are in the distinct minority of college basketball fans, but from our view there is still a significant benefit for conferences that some way, somehow have a national footprint, no matter how small it is. We have memories of excellent games from all of those leagues mentioned above, and that there is no more opportunity for more of them is unfortunate. Worse, those of us who do prefer television over a computer are probably just going to move onto the next TV game, rather than fire up a computer for an inferior (to us) viewing experience…

Remember when Lipscomb was a chic preseason pick to challenge or even dethrone Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun? The Bisons have had a decent season but not quite what was expected, currently sitting at 15-9 overall and 5-4 in the A-Sun, well off FGCU’s league-leading pace. An interesting development has been where Lipscomb’s three-point shooting has gone. The Bisons were one of the top long-range bombing teams in the country last year, hitting 10.3 triples per game, but this year are down to 7.8 and far worse are hitting just 32% from deep. The loss of snipers Nathan Moran (90 triples last year) and Josh Williams (74) has been bigger than many on the outside looking in anticipated, and as a whole Lipscomb hasn’t been as efficient on offense (43.8% from the field), even as Garrison Mathews is having another excellent year (22.3 ppg) and Rob Marberry has erupted of late, including 38 points recently in a double-overtime win over USC Upstate…

It may not be extreme panic time yet, but if it were us, people should be starting to get very concerned about Nevada’s at-large hopes for the NCAA Tournament. The questionable losses are starting to accumulate, and past experience is the selection committee is all too glad to find reasons to leave teams like the Wolf Pack out if they give any reason to do so. If Caleb Martin’s injury sidelines him for a significant amount of time, perhaps this is moot anyway, but even if Nevada gets back to full strength, increasingly its profile is relying almost solely on a home win over Rhode Island and whatever it can do against Boise State…

Quietly, the Southland Conference has the best regular season race that no one knows about this year. After Wednesday, there are five teams within one loss of first place, led by surprising Nicholls State at 9-2. Defending champion New Orleans, Sam Houston State and SE Louisiana are all just one-half game behind the Colonels at 9-3, and dangerous Stephen F. Austin lurks at 7-3. This will be a lot of fun to watch sort out down the stretch, especially as these two have a total of seven games left against each other.

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