Not only are we in the midst of the holidays, but conference play beckons if it hasn’t already started. Non-conference play is almost complete, and teams form impressions during this time of how they will be in conference play. Even so, as is always the case this is imperfect. Conference play is a different animal, as teams are more familiar with each other from having played each other every year. That’s why we see some teams even in mid-majors get nice wins in non-conference play, but then lose games in conference play that strike the untrained eye as head-scratchers.
It is with that in mind that we take a look at how all 31 conferences shape up based on non-conference play thus far.
Non-conference play is basically done at this point. A handful of games remain for many teams, and we’ll see a non-conference game or two sprinkled in between conference games over the next couple of months, but conference play beckons. Several have already started, with the West Coast Conference getting jump on the rest of the country this past Saturday and Monday. For two months, we’ve had a look at teams to get an idea of who they are. They have shown us something thus far.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at how the conference races shape up based on what we’ve seen in non-conference play.
No more are the days when, in projecting the best teams in the Mid-American Conference, one could eliminate half the deck before even starting their breakdown.
Since the MAC went to divisions in 1997, the East Division has dominated play with few exceptions. That was especially true of late, as East teams Akron, Kent State, Miami (Ohio) and Ohio accounted for all nine league NCAA Tournament appearances from 2005-13. Meanwhile, the MAC West seemed proficient at only being as bad as the East was good. Just one of its teams even qualified for the MAC tourney final in that time (Toledo in 2006), and its weakness was never better displayed than 2007-08 when three teams combined to ‘win’ the West in a three-way tie at 7-9.
Non-conference play is just about over at this point. Conference games are ready to take over the rest of the slate, with a few having an “opening day” of sorts, including the Big East with its well-publicized day of five games on Tuesday. A few have already had early conference games, with the West Coast Conference having its opening day on Saturday.
How are the conferences shaping up? Which ones look like we thought and which ones look nothing like what we thought before the season? Here is a look at all 32 conferences as conference play beckons.
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Tod Kowalczyk told his team that they were the better team. He wasn’t crazy for saying so, although there are those who would say he was, but his Toledo team proved it on the court Thursday night when they walked out of Conte Forum with a 95-92 win over Boston College.
“I told the guys in a timeout, we’re the better team,” said Kowalczyk, now in his fourth season at the school. “I thought we played that way coming down the stretch.”
Non-conference play is almost over, and it has been quite a stretch. We’ve learned a good deal about a lot of teams, while some are still a mystery for various reasons – injuries, suspensions, ineligibility and a light schedule are all possible reasons. In addition, a few conferences have already seen a game or two mixed in with the non-conference schedule.
Conference play is right around the corner, and while a non-conference resume doesn’t tell the whole story, it does shed some light on teams and conferences. In conference play, there is more familiarity since teams play each other every year, although the changing landscape is starting to diminish that factor a bit. That’s one reason why we see some teams put forth a very good non-conference showing, including some good wins, then go on to have a mediocre showing in conference play.
With that in mind, here’s a look at how every conference in America shapes up.
AMHERST, Mass. – Ohio University at first glance would seem like an obvious pick to win the Mid-American Conference this season. Their personnel, their experience that includes a run to the Sweet 16 last year, and their coach are all reasons to feel that they are the team to beat. But if their 85-76 loss at UMass on Wednesday night is any indication, there are things that could derail a championship and an attempt to make another run in the NCAA Tournament.
Ohio is unquestionably a veteran team. The Bobcats have no freshmen and are dominated by upperclassmen, with three senior starters, five seniors overall and seven juniors. They have used the same starting lineup in every game thus far, and nine Bobcats average double-digit minutes and another averages 9.3. But those numbers are a bit deceptive, as from a production standpoint there is a pretty good drop-off after the top six players in the rotation.
KENT, Ohio – Wednesday night’s Bowling Green-Kent State game was the first time I’d seen BG in the Louis Orr era, in fact the first time since fairly early in the “Dakich Administration” (and no, I don’t much care for their current Brown uniforms). I had seen Kent State, the preseason favorite in the MAC’s Eastern Division, twice before in this Coach Geno Ford’s inaugural season. Sitting on press row next to a Kent administrator last night, I whispered that play appears down in the MAC from my short tenure with Dakich ten years ago, that BG has nobody on this year’s team like Antonio Daniels, Anthony Stacy or Keith McLeod, and that Kent State has no one the likes of Trevor Huffmann, Demetric Shaw or Antonio Gates. Clearly a fan of major conference basketball (and specifically Duke), that administrator made the case that college ball is down everywhere, implying that result to be the trickle down effect of so many prep players and underclassmen turning pro. The major programs have to take lesser, as do the mid-majors, low-majors, and so on. And I agree. And as a result, Ivy teams this decade remind me of Division III teams when I coached at that level in the early 80s.
But that wasn’t the whole story. Back in the 90s, the MAC was viewed as a strong and improving basketball conference, the best in the Midwest short of the Big Ten (and head and shoulders above the Horizon, then called the Midwestern Collegiate Conference). So good, in fact, that BG’s Antonio Daniels was – apparently – overrated in the 1997 draft, made the fourth pick overall by the then-Vancouver Grizzlies. So good that there was little dispute that Jim Larranaga’s move from BG to George Mason in the spring of 1997 was a downward move. (To Larranaga’s credit, his 11+ years at Mason constitute a primary reason why the Colonial Athletic Association, like the Horizon, is now clearly above the MAC.)
With those observations as a backdrop, it was hardly surprising – and must be attributed to way more than home-court advantage – that in the battle of preseason MAC and Horizon League favorites earlier this season, Cleveland State beat Kent State 67-41, and the Vikings looked like they could name the final score.
Last on this, in sports as in life it often takes excruciatingly long for change to be recognized. For that reason, the MAC still convenes each year for a “big-time” conference tournament at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, while the Horizon has yet to “go public,” preferring to play tournament games at separate venues, hosted by higher seeds (and that’s only after protecting the first two seeds with that awful double-bye).
All of that said, the games are still played, and traditional rivalries respected. Perhaps the biggest these last ten years in the MAC’s Eastern Division is that between Miami and Kent State, which will be renewed this Saturday in Kent. Here’s hoping both Kent State-Miami games are great ones in this final season for Miami’s fine coach, Charlie Coles.
Coming into last night’s game against Bowling Green, we all knew what Ford had in his backcourt. Undersized senior second guard Al Fisher was last year’s Player of the Year in the conference, having averaged 14 points (over 16 in conference play), 4 assists, nearly 1.5 steals, and a remarkable 4 rebounds. This year he’s at 15 points, nearly 4 assists, nearly 2 steals, and 3 boards. Three inches bigger, stronger, and a better shooter, much-traveled former big-time recruit Tyree Evans joined Fisher in the backcourt in mid-December, and is averaging 17 points, and shooting 46 percent both in front of and behind the arc. 6-4 broad-shouldered junior Chris Singletary is more of a point guard than the aforementioned Fisher and Evans, like Fisher averages nearly 4 assists, scores 14, grabs 4 rebounds, and is the acknowledged team leader. (Ford calls Singletary “another coach in the huddle.”)
But the forward positions have been more problematic, with 6-9, 270-pound junior Brandon Parks often too low and too slow to help offensively, or on the boards. Lefty senior Julian Sullinger has proven clever near the goal, but while stout he’s closer to 6-3 than to his listed 6-5, and as his coach acknowledged often “too short to grab lots of rebounds.”
Enter newcomer and junior Anthony Simpson, a transfer from Illinois’ Highland Community College. Simpson can run and jump and looked more like a real basketball player than any other forward in the gym last night. This will make the point: I’d seen two of their games from start to finish before last night, had committed the names of six Kent State players to memory, and Simpson wasn’t any of the six. All I knew about him was that there was a JUCO transfer who split time with Sullinger at the power forward spot, who seemed to be taking a few minutes away from Julian, though apparently is more productive off the bench than as a starter. In Sunday’s loss at Ohio opening Kent’s conference season Simpson had played a total of six minutes, missed the only shot he’d attempted, and pulling down just one rebound.
He came into the BG game having started four of Kent’s 15 previous games, averaging 19 minutes, six points, and six boards (actually, six boards in 19 minutes is a terrific total; as a result of watching Cleveland State’s George Tandy, this writer has started to love the phrase – and the statistic I can’t find anywhere for the college game – “rebounds per minute played”). Ford said that he held Simpson to just six minutes at Ohio Sunday because “he couldn’t sustain playing competitively over any more minutes.”
In last night’s first half, Ford played Simpson 13 minutes, playing him more than previously along with Sullinger, largely in place of Parks due to Parks’ two early fouls. Simpson managed to contribute offensively near the goal, scoring eight in that half, on 3-4 shooting. But rather inauspiciously, Simpson managed a total of zero rebounds during those 13 first-half minutes. Combined with just one rebound for Sullinger in 16 first-half minutes, Kent State boasted a total of one rebound from the forward positions for the entire half. As a team BG out-rebounded KSU 23-14 in the half, grabbing 11 offensive boards to Kent’s nine defensive boards, and at halftime the game was tied at 33.
Then a new player came out of the locker room at halftime wearing uniform no. 21, and in a his best half of the season Simpson dominated the paint, scoring another eight points (on 4-6 shooting) and grabbing seven big rebounds. Kent State won the boards in that second half by four, and won on the scoreboard by 24, finishing with a convincing 72-48 win. Fisher contributed 23 points (many in the second half of the second half, after the issue was decided), but the story of the game was Simpson. And not a moment too soon with Miami in town Saturday.
I asked Ford what he said to Simpson at halftime to elicit that kind of play, and he responded only half-kiddingly that “Anthony may not have understood a word I said at halftime.” But Ford acknowledged that he needed that kind of game – that kind of half – from Simpson desperately, that to compete with the better teams in the MAC he needs Simpson to build on that performance, and live up to his “big, strong, athletic body.” And if he does, with the three quality guards we all know about, maybe this Kent group will be good enough to win the Eastern Division this down year in the MAC, maybe even win the MAC Tournament, and in post-season (the NCAA Tournament if they win the conference tourney), just maybe be good enough to give some team from another mid-major conference, one that’s passed the MAC in recent years, a run for its money. At least, that’s Ford’s plan.
STORRS, CT – Today’s task was to evaluate Rhode Island’s Ryan Center and UConn’s Gampel Pavilion. In addition, I was hoping to get enough material to write some kind of game story.
It was perfect. Akron, a very good MAC team with a coach that always gives me a good quote, coming in to try to steal a win from a strong Rams team from the A-10. That Mid-Major struggle was the early game.
The night cap was the Huskies taking on Big East foe, Rutgers. Sounds like a simple operation. Take care of the URI/Akron game then drive a little over an hour and knock out the late game.
Holy crap, did that plan go south in a hurry.
First off, the Rhode Island women played before the men and that game moved at the pace of some Post Office workers. The men’s game concluded with the Rams pounding Akron.
After the game I finish writing my evaluation then I stuck around and started to get some post-game comments and finally figured out it would take too long. I needed to get on the road to UConn.
The Rhode Island campus in Kinston is a good 10 miles on two-lane roads from I-95. It took me 20 minutes just to get to the highway and the whole trip is supposed to take 75 minutes.
After reaching I-95, it was a 25 mile drive down to the exit to start the cross country journey to Storrs.
I missed the turn off and it took me about 20 minutes to get turned around. Then it was too dark in my car to read the directions without pulling over to stop under a light, which I did every five minutes.
I finally asked a woman coming out of a gas station where UConn was from where we were. She knew, but explaining it to me in concise way was not something she could do easily.
She said, “Drive down this road until you get to the big rocks and turn right, then follow the signs.”
Of course, I wanted to know how far down it was and she explained she was not very good at miles.
So I asked how about in driving time. She thought for a few moments and said, “Drive for maybe 20 minutes.”
I then inquired as to what these rocks looked like.
“Not rocks, ducks! It is big ducks”
I said ducks and she said it back to me, only it still sounded a little like she was saying rocks.
So I said ducks again and she said something I could not understand but I thought it was either rocks or maybe ducks. I just couldn’t make it out for sure. I thanked her and proceeded to drive looking for some either big rocks or ducks.
After about 18 minutes I spotted a bridge that had big columns with big stone or cement ducks on top of them. So I guess she said ducks.
There was a sign for UConn and I went in the direction the sign was pointing and 10 miles later the campus appeared. I had no idea where the arena was located but I saw a line of cars and I figured it was in that direction.
So I decided to out-flank those cars by driving around the outside of the campus and coming in the back. I got around the back and there was a line of cars and I got in it. After about 10 minutes I inched up to a policeman and asked him where to find my correct parking lot.
In between directing cars he yelled out, “Up the hill and to the right.”
That was about as concise as telling me to turn at the duck or rock.
Thirty minutes later I inched up to Gumpel and there were no policemen, parking lot attendants or anyone that looked official.
There was a huge line of cars turning in next to the arena, so that looked like where I could park. If it was the wrong lot, I felt pretty confident I could talk my way in for free. I have done that earlier today at Rhode Island, at Butler several million times, UNC, NCSU, UGA, Maryland and a bunch more over the years.
But while I still about 150 feet away someone came out with a couple of barrels and closed off that parking area off to the right of the arena. To make it worse, he walked away.
Now there was nobody to talk into letting me park. I drove around outside the perimeter of the campus again and parked on the street about a mile from Gampel Pavilion and started walking toward the general direction of the arena.
I decided to shave some time off by cutting between two dorms. It was like a maze of dorms. I walked toward my right then back toward my left around another building and then right again and finally left around one more building and then I saw a fence.
That maze came to an abrupt end and I never found the cheese. I just walked 300 yards out of my way in 20 degree cold.
I was boiling mad at this point.
I finally got to Gampel and I was on the opposite side of the building from the gate I was supposed to enter. I walked around the whole building able to see inside the seating bowl each time I passed one of the three gates I had to go by before I got to the west gate.
I walked in still hopping mad and a guard told me I couldn’t bring a case into the building and that I should take it out to my car. You know, that car that is over a mile away on the other side of the maze of dorms.
I informed him it was my computer. He wanted to know why I had a computer. I told him so I could write about this crappy campus and piece of crap arena.
He said, “Oh, I thought you were a fan” I let him know that sports writers could be fat pigs too.
When I got in there was about six minutes left in the first half. I waited until half time and set my computer up. It took me one of the media people 15 minutes to figure how to get me logged on the wireless internet.
At this point I am a broken man. I have a lot of words to write and not much game left to do it.
So let’s see what we have here.
The Rams just took apart Akron. Rhode Island shot 55.8 percent (29-52) for the game and 57 percent from beyond the 3-point line (8-14).
Akron shot just 35 percent for the game and not a single Zip scored in double figures. Rhode Island’s strong defense had a lot to do with how poorly Akron played.
In the night cap, Connecticut beat the tar out of Rutgers 80-49. Rutgers shot just 28.8 percent (15-52) for the game UConn was big and fast. When they pulled down a rebound they shot out a quick pass and they were off to the races
Rhode Island against UConn might have been a better game today
And now for the arena comments.
Gampel Pavilion opened in 1989 and it is pretty underwhelming for a school from a Big Six Conference. It is not a dump, it is well kept, it is just the bare minimum in terms of a basketball venue.
It is a cement structure with a walkway around the inside of the seating bowl and that separates the upper seating section from the lower seating section. The upper seats on the ends are plastic bleachers and the rest are plastic chair backs. There is no outer concourse or lobby. In the four corners on the walkway level there are some concession stands that serve food. The score boards are attached to the wall above the seats. They are standard boards with video boards and player stats. I guess they don’t put more money and effort into making it nice because they play a fair number of games every year at the XL Center in Hartford and that is much bigger. The crowds at Gampel are big time. It holds 8000 and 2000 plus each game are screaming students. It is loud and intimidating.
Now Rhode Island built a much nicer arena. Ryan Center opened in 2002 with a thrilling overtime over USC.
It has a lower seating area with padded seats on the sides and upper seating consisting of plastic chairs with a beautiful carpeted concourse that runs under the upper seating section. The seats go up, rather than out, so the sightlines from the top row are great. It seats 7657 and every seat is a chair back.
Rhode island has pretty good parking nearby and they don’t charge to park I don’t think they have a maze of dorms either.
They just need more fans, it was at most, half-filled today.
So that is my East Coast swing for this year. Any day I can get two games in is a good day even with ducks, mazes and traffic jams.
Hey! Shouldn’t there be a cigar in this story?
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