When college basketball begins each November (soon to be October?), scheduling disparities make it difficult to evaluate teams early, even harder to compare them. Mid-majors like the teams in our league often have incredibly uneven schedules; for example, Detroit played NAIA Division II Aquinas College on Wednesday night, managing a 58-48 win at home, but is now en route to Champaign-Urbana for a game tomorrow night at Illinois.
This happens for reasons many of you are familiar with: first, there just aren’t always enough regional mid-majors – particularly outside of the northeast – to fill up one another’s schedules. Second, while major programs generally won’t play at mid-majors, the financial “guarantees” they pay to mid-major programs to play in their gyms provide resources many universities depend on to fund their basketball programs. Third, recognizing that casual and less knowledgeable fans (including some in the ranks of university administrators and boosters) just count wins and losses each season, irrespective of the opponents, mid-major coaches who like their jobs often lobby to play schools from lesser Division I conferences, Division II and Division III opponents, and NAIA schools. Fourth, many coaches believe that at least some wins during the season – no matter against whom – are essential to help maintain the enthusiasm and commitment of their players.
Doubtless some of you remember that in the days John Thompson, Jr. coached at Georgetown, most years they opened their season with a lopsided win over Division III St. Leo’s College. And while St. Leo’s and other D-III’s no longer appear on the Hoyas’ schedule, Coach John Thompson III was following in his father’s footsteps last week when Georgetown hosted one of the weakest teams in Division I, managing to keep the score differential against Savannah State under 100.
If you’re inferring some annoyance on the part of this writer with schools scheduling “cupcakes,” well, you’re inferring correctly. In addition to Detroit’s game this past week with Aquinas, Jimmy Collins’ vaunted UIC team played D-II Lewis College (a school I’d never heard of), and on its upcoming three-game home stand, Cleveland State will play both D-III La Roche College and D-III Notre Dame College (that’s not the Notre Dame we all know and love – the one CSU should be playing). If any of these schools find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble for an at-large NCAA bid (or for an NIT bid), they need look no further than their own schedules to learn why.
Last on this, I just took a peak at the schedule for recent D-I admit New Jersey Institute of Technology. As many of you know, since moving to Division I, the most widely known fact in the history of NJIT undoubtedly is that its basketball team failed to win a single game last year; they have maintained “perfection” to date this season, losing their first 8 games. That said, I recognized every single school listed on NJIT’s 2008-09 schedule, and every one is an NCAA Division I member. So while that program obviously has hurdles to overcome, kudos to Coach Jim Engles and Athletic Director Lenny Kaplan for jumping into the deep end, and not manufacturing wins by playing the local junior high in their own gym!
With that lengthy introduction, now that Horizon teams have as many as eleven games under their belts, in some cases against common opponents (including two conference games for everyone except UIC and Loyola), the league appears to have separated itself into two “divisions.” Butler and Illinois-Chicago have been by far the most impressive, with preseason favorite CSU, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin-Milwaukee rounding out this writer’s “first division.”
Over the last 10 days, UIC backed up its earlier monster win at the SEC’s Vanderbilt with a home conference win over its biggest rival, Loyola. Then they went to Atlanta, besting the ACC’s Georgia Tech last Sunday, 66-60. Both of Collins’ senior stars came up big in the win over the Yellow Jackets, preseason Player of Year point guard Josh Mayo with 17 points on 6-14, 7 assists and 6 rebounds, and center Scott VanderMeer with 19 points on 8-15 shooting and seven rebounds. Coach, even with your two stars graduating this June, please don’t schedule Lewis College again next year!
If a loss can make a previously undefeated team look even better, that’s just what happened to Butler this week. Coming into December 5-0 with wins at Drake and over Northwestern, Butler began the month with Zach Hahn’s buzzer-beating trey at CSU, 50-48, won a workmanlike second conference road game in snowy Youngstown two nights later, 79-71, and then beat Bradley in Peoria, 87-75. Then they lost a titanic defensive struggle at OSU, 54-51. But what a game it was.
First, that game showed that Butler’s guards can really guard, holding vaunted Buckeye Evan Turner to 14 points (making him take 10 shots to get them), and holding Turner’s athletic running mate David Lighty to 10. And behind Matt Howard’s 10 boards – now a sophomore and a burgeoning star, Howard seems to play better against better opponents – Butler was able to win the battle of the boards by one, 34-33. Above all, that game was the coming out party for freshman sensation Gordon Hayward, who’s fast becoming the star of this space, as well as of the Horizon, and of college basketball in the state of Indiana. With OSU in man-to-man all afternoon, and assigning forwards rather than guards to defend him, Hayward rewarded those of us who love his stroke by hitting 7 treys in the game (in 11 tries) for a total of 25 points. He also asserted himself on the boards (as he had at CSU with Howard in foul trouble), pulling down 7 rebounds. And he had a trey in the air at the final buzzer that would have tied the game.
The only questions I have left is how good Hayward will get this year (in the conference, in the conference tourney and beyond), how he’ll fair against UIC (now that he’s no longer a surprise), and whether Butler Coach Brad Stevens no longer has reason to expect that he’ll have Hayward around for a full four seasons.
For Cleveland State it was a mixed week, shooting just 33 percent in a ten-point loss in West Virginia (27 percent in the second half, and 25 percent from the arc), then improving in that category against rebuilding Marist (56 percent for the game), and then saving December with a win at then-11th ranked Syracuse on Monday night. Put aside that Syracuse isn’t anything close to the 11th-best team in America (that darned schedule-maker again, bringing a parade of Ivy and Patriot teams into the Carrier Dome so far this season), that Syracuse’s heralded 2-3 zone is the least mobile, least aggressive, and most permeable defense this writer has ever seen (just the opposite of the 1-1-3 match-up Coach Greg Kampe of Oakland used to nearly beat CSU in Cleveland), and that the Orange played this game with less intensity and emotion than any of us could imagine. Still, CSU was the better team on Monday night, and star forward J’Nathan Bullock rebounded from an 0-9 first half to shoot 8-12 in the second to keep CSU in the game and even get the Vikings a 5-point lead in the final minute.
After a trey and a put-back tied the score for Syracuse, CSU had the ball with 3 seconds left on its own baseline. The ball was inbounded to underperforming senior guard Cedric Jackson (who’d previously played in the Carrier Dome with St. John’s), and Jackson launched a 70-foot heave at the buzzer, which banked in (I thought you had to call “bank”) to give Coach Gary Waters a much needed win, 72-69.
In fairness, CSU could be viewed as “entitled” to those D-III’s coming into Wolstein, having already played Washington, Kansas State, Butler and West Virginia. Moreover, with Jackson severely disappointing over the first third of the season – he came in to the dome averaging just 9.4 and shooting 30 percent, 14 percent from the arc – perhaps that 70-foot heave will turn Jackson’s season around. Certainly, it put a smile on Ced’s face that hadn’t been there in weeks.
Elsewhere in the “first division,” Green Bay won its second home conference game, 66-59 over Wright State, beat Idaho State at home, lost at Wisconsin, and then lost a heartbreaker at home to Oakland, 79-76. (How good must Kampe be with 7 wins already, including road wins at Oregon and Green Bay, all without star senior forward Derick Nelson? Oh, if Nelson could somehow be ready for tomorrow afternoon’s “home” game against Michigan at the Palace…) And after beating Wright State at home for its second conference win, Milwaukee lost to Charlie Coles’ Miami team in Ohio, 69-45.
In the “second division,” Valpo lost at home to IPFW, and played Miami in Oxford tougher than Milwaukee did, losing 62-50. After losing at conference rival UIC, Loyola beat UMKC at home. And after losing its second conference game in Wisconsin (at Green Bay), Detroit also lost at Bowling Green before besting Aquinas.
After also losing its second conference game in Wisconsin (at Milwaukee), Wright State finally figured out how to win without injured all-conference selection Vaughn Duggins, beating Toledo at home, winning at Arkansas-Little Rock, playing tough and well in falling 66-53 at Wake Forest, and then making it 3 out of 4 by besting Norfolk State at home. And while for now residing in this writer’s “second division,” that recent “mini-run” of success combined with Duggins’ expected January return might combine to move the Raiders up into the “first division,” perhaps displacing one or the other of the Wisconsin schools.
Remember, while most pre-season publications predicted CSU atop the Horizon, expecting a healthy Vaughn USA Today preferred Wright State. Could this be one of those December injuries that helps a team succeed later on in conference play?
Lastly, after playing hard and shooting well in an 8-point home loss to Butler, YSU was competitive at Kent, losing 82-74. While sophomore wing Vytas Sulskis may be a “poor man’s Gordon Hayward,” junior guard Kelvin Bright may be a “poor man’s Shelvin Mack,” and senior center Jack Liles probably doesn’t quite qualify as a “poor man’s Matt Howard,” it appears Coach Jerry Slocum will get a lot out of this roster, and be competitive in conference play, at least at home.
Horizon News and Notes
- With exam breaks coming to an end around the league, there will some great games Christmas week. Valpo will host North Carolina at the United Center tomorrow (2 p.m. on ESPNU), Detroit will play at Illinois tomorrow evening, and Wright State begins three straight days of play in the San Juan Shootout, facing Oral Roberts tomorrow, and South Florida and Murray State Sunday and Monday. On Sunday YSU will play at Charlotte. On Tuesday night, the night before Christmas Eve, Butler will play at Xavier, a game also on ESPNU. And in a battle of preseason favorites in the Horizon and the MAC, and of Gary Waters’ old and new schools, also on Tuesday CSU will host Kent State.
- Merry Christmas, Horizon fans. And may Santa leave a wonderful season of conference games under all of our trees!