NOTES FROM DECEMBER 3rd
The Most Notable Game: (#175) USC, 51 @ (#46) Nebraska, 63
This game was closely contested for the first 18 minutes of the game, with the Trojans and Cornhuskers trading leads back and forth. The turning point came with just under two minutes left in the first half, when Ray Gallegos hit a jumper and then two threes, going on a personal 8-0 run to end the first stanza. The Cornhuskers (6-1, 0-0) didn’t let off the gas in the start of the second half, either, outscoring USC 11-2 in the first six and a half minutes, extending their lead to 17 at one point. Andre Almeida had six points in that run, and Nebraska never looked back. They enjoyed their largest lead at 20 points, after Gallegos hit his fifth three-pointer. He was the star of this game, eventually knocking down 6-10 from beyond the arc and scoring 20 points in all. Despite decent guard play from USC’s Jio Fontan, Byron Wesley, and J.T. Terrell, the Trojans (3-4, 0-0) were never able to recover from a ten-minute stretch in which they made no field goals and only put in two free throws. Nebraska was on fire from downtown, hitting 11 of 17 as a team, and if they continue to shoot the ball with such efficiency, they will be a tough team to beat. Watch out for the Huskers this season – they might just surprise a few people. It remains to be seen how they will fare in a very tough Big Ten, though.
A Couple Major-Conference Teams Flying Under the Radar: (#16) Oregon, (#50) Alabama
As a lifelong Beaver fan, this sentence kills me to write, but… the Ducks might have a pretty dang good team this year. Oregon (7-1, 0-0) has already impressed with a couple big wins to open the season, and their only loss so far is to one of the nation’s best, (#8) Cincinnati. They upended (#23) UNLV in Vegas, and absolutely destroyed a wayward (#248) Vanderbilt squad. They’ve got five players averaging double figures, which doesn’t even include perhaps their most solid performer, Arsalan Kazemi (9.0 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 3.7 SPG). They are good at forcing turnovers (11 per game), and they are outrebounding their opponents on the year. They do have some things to work on however, including the fact that they turn the ball over 17 times a game, and that they have been streaky shooting the three-ball (29.7%). A tilt next week with Nebraska will be a good test for both teams and a game I’m excited to watch. Oregon opens up the conference season against the Beavers on January 6th. If they can ratchet down a few things before then, the Ducks could make some serious noise in a crowded Pac-12.
Alabama (6-1, 0-0) is another team that is looking very solid in the early going, without much hype on them. They took down Oregon State and dismantled (#167) Villanova to win the 2K Sports Classic in New York City in November. They were undefeated until Saturday, when they became the SEC’s latest casualty in the Big East/SEC Challenge (which was all Big East). Alabama went toe-to-toe with Cincinnati, who as I mentioned before, is one of the best teams in the country. The Tide lost 58-56 on a buzzer-beater and were thisclose to jumping into the national rankings. Still, they are receiving votes, and I suspect we will see them with a little number by their name before too long. They have a tough couple games coming up in (#100) Dayton and (#56) VCU, but Trevor Releford (younger brother of Kansas’ Travis Releford) and Rodney Cooper should have the Tide rolling into SEC play with a solid mark and some confidence – something they’ll need to compete in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
A Couple Low-Major Teams to Keep an Eye On: (#47) Middle Tennessee, (#33) Ohio
The early success of Middle Tennessee (5-2, 1-0) actually dates back to a great season last year, when they won 27 games and dominated the Sun Belt to the tune of a 14-2 conference mark. The Blue Raiders were upset, however, in their conference tournament opener against 9-seed Arkansas State, which cost them a trip to the Big Dance. They went to the NIT instead, where they beat Marshall and Tennessee, before losing to eventual runner-up Minnesota. MTSU lost only one player from that 27-win team, and they now have six seniors on the squad, including guards Marcos Knight and Raymond Cintron. These guys crash the boards with the best of them (14 offensive rebounds per game), they take care of the ball (1.15 AST/TO ratio), and they shoot the ball well (39.4% from downtown). The Blue Raiders got hammered by (#7) Florida earlier this year, and dropped one at (#92) Akron on Sunday in overtime, but make no mistake – the boys from Murfreesboro might be the best the Sun Belt has to offer, although T.J. Price, Jamal Crook, and (#53) Western Kentucky will have something to say about that. Barring another conference tournament disaster, though, I think we will be seeing Middle Tennessee dancing in March. Their first true test comes on Saturday, when (#3) Ole Miss comes to town. (Note: The Raiders will be moving out of the low-majors and into Conference USA starting in 2014, another indication of a program on the rise.)
Ohio (6-1, 0-0) made waves last year when they reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1964. Because of that success, they lost head coach John Groce to (#14) Illinois, who is enjoying a fantastic start to the year. First-year coach John Christian comes into a fortunate situation with a solid team that returns everybody from last year’s squad, including one of the country’s best guard tandems you’ve never heard of: seniors D.J. Cooper and Walter Offutt. These two were integral in last year’s upset of Michigan, as well as their triumph over South Florida, before the Bobcats finally fell to top-seeded North Carolina. Cooper, Offutt and the rest of the bunch are off to another hot start, winning their first six games – including a 25-point drubbing of (#67) Richmond – before falling to (#162) Robert Morris on Saturday. As long as these guys continue to protect the ball (1.39 AST/TO), play solid defense (11 steals per game), and shoot the lights out (40.3% on threes), the road to a Mid-American Conference championship will go through Athens. It certainly will be interesting to see how they handle their next test, when they travel to (#106) Memphis on Wednesday.
Forgive the West Coast bias, but the Pac-12 is a really hard conference to nail down – and might even be the best one, top to bottom, in the country. Besides (#12) Arizona, there are no really dominant teams, but there are a lot of really talented ones. I’m not sure if there’s a conference with more parity heading into the New Year. (#43) Colorado and (#51) California are both solid teams who will likely spend time in the national polls, and I already discussed Oregon’s quick start. You shouldn’t sleep on (#38) Arizona State, either, who is 6-1 and whose only loss was at the hands of (#19) Creighton. Over the weekend, I talked about the early woes of both (#94) UCLA and (#122) Washington, but something tells me these teams aren’t going away just yet. Stanford has stumbled out of the gate a bit, but losses to (#44) Missouri and (#10) Minnesota are largely forgivable (though one expects that they’d have beaten (#128) Belmont). Then there’s (#107) Oregon State, who returns almost everybody from last year, and whose two losses came in tight games with Alabama and (#26) Kansas – two very stellar ball clubs. USC has played some tough teams – and they haven’t fared well – but they’ll still pick up a handful of wins in the conference. (#83) Utah has played well, but has been doing so against a bunch of nobodies. (#127) Washington State even has a win over a pretty good (#41) Texas A&M team. While this conference may not be littered with superpowers, they definitely have a dozen capable squads that I would be hesitant to face late in the season. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out, and I am excited to see what goes down in the Staples Center in early March.
What to Watch on Tuesday (55 games total):
(#123) Texas @ (#70) Georgetown
(#54) Oklahoma @ (#126) Arkansas
(#114) Kent State @ (#48) Bucknell
(#105) South Dakota State @ (#10) Minnesota
(#9) Wyoming @ (#59) Illinois State (Note: I can’t believe I missed that this game was coming up when I featured both of these teams in the Mid-Major notes on Saturday. This game should be a really solid one.)
(#69) Western Michigan @ (#6) Michigan
(#101) N.C. State @ (#57) Connecticut
(#20) Louisville @ (#96) Charleston
(#65) Northwestern @ (#55) Baylor
(#68) Southern Miss @ (#12) Arizona
I’ve decided to expand the standings page to 100, because… well, why not? Now go see if your favorite team made the Updated Tournament Projections and Top 100!