NOTES FROM DECEMBER 4th
The Most Notable Game: (#74) Connecticut, 65 – (#87) North Carolina State, 69
This game was played as part of the Jimmy V Classic in New York City, and boy, Coach Valvano would’ve loved to have seen this one. In a game where the Wolfpack (5-2, 0-0) sported the phrase “Don’t Ever Give Up” on the backs of their jerseys, N.C. State heard the message loud and clear. The Huskies traded punches with them for as long as they could, but in the end, C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell – both of whom recorded double-doubles – proved too efficient inside. After Leslie hit a pair of free throws to break a tie at 53, Howell put the Pack up by four after a tip-in. Lorenzo Brown, who scored 16, stole the ball on the ensuing possession, feeding it to Leslie for a dunk that put N.C. State ahead by six. After some UConn free throws and a few changes in possession, Leslie grabbed a Howell miss and slammed home another dunk with just under two minutes to play. At this point, Connecticut started playing the foul game and the Wolfpack’s Scott Wood was clutch, making four of four in the final half-minute. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright carried Connecticut (6-2, 0-0) as far as they could and the Huskies never went away in this one, but in the end, N.C. State heeded the words of their late coach. They didn’t ever give up.
Major-Conference Teams Who Are Beating the System: (#7) Ole Miss, (#34) Iowa
This has been the elephant in the room for the DPI during the whole first month of play, and I’m finally just going to come out and say it: my system is not foolproof, and some teams are slipping through the cracks. Ole Miss (6-0, 0-0) is the biggest culprit. Yes, they are undefeated. Yes, they play in a strong conference. The fact remains, though, that they have not really played anybody good yet. They are simply devouring cupcakes at this point, and in turn, their DPI is gaining a little winter weight. Their best opponent so far has been (#115) Rutgers, which should tell you something about their scheduling. They are beating teams by an average of just under 30 points per game, though, and they are out-rebounding their opponents by 12 a game. On average, the Rebels pull down over 14 offensive boards and are forcing their opponents into 20 turnovers. Ole Miss has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.43, while holding their opponents to a 0.50 mark. So, say what you will about the schedule: Mississippi is playing as good of basketball as anyone in the early going. Now, a meeting with (#52) Middle Tennessee State on Saturday could either expose them as a fluke or confirm them as a power. I know I’ll have an eye on that game.
Another school who has been getting fat off the tasty and tiny morsels is Iowa (6-2, 0-0). Their win over (#57) Western Kentucky is nice, yes, but their next-best win is over the (#164) Gardner-Webb. While the Bulldogs of GWU might make some noise in the Big South this year, Iowa needs some better wins than that. Their two losses have come in their only pair of true tests this season, against admittedly very good squads, and on the road in both instances. They were beaten pretty easily by both (#9) Wichita State and (#15) Virginia Tech, and those are two wins that are certainly forgivable. Still, the six wins that they have notched on the year are less than impressive, and one wonders just how long it will take for the Hawkeyes to come crashing back down to Earth. Perhaps they won’t – but their first two tests against formidable foes do not bode well for the boys in Iowa City. Games against in-state rivals (#35) Iowa State and (#147) Northern Iowa will be good barometers of how their season is going to go – and a New Year’s Eve match against (#1) Indiana looms.
Small Schools Who Are Doing Different Dances with Lady Luck: (#272) Drexel, (#263) Troy
One of these days, you have to figure Drexel is going to have a bit better luck. The Dragons (2-6, 0-0), considered by many last year to have been snubbed in not receiving a tournament bid after a 27-6 season, have played in a lot of neck-and-neck tilts so far this season. Unfortunately, they’ve been on the short end of almost all of them. Their first game was a three-point loss to (#134) Kent State, followed by a two-point loss to (#78) Illinois State. They were able to pull off a 61-59 victory over in-state rival (#307) Pennsylvania, but that’s not the sort of win you hang your hat on. They’ve also suffered close losses at the hands of (#116) St. Mary’s and (#36) Xavier, but their last two defeats came at the hands of lesser opponents. This team has lost their winning ways from last season – although their fall from grace is perhaps not as drastic as (#299) Old Dominion’s, which I will discuss later in the week.
So, if Drexel isn’t receiving any luck, someone has to be, right? Well, that team just might be the Troy Trojans (4-5, 0-0). Yes, Troy has only four wins so far on the year, and they even recorded one against a major-conference school, albeit a slipshod (#251) Mississippi State squad. Their losses to (#46) Texas A&M, (#42) Louisiana Tech, and (#170) UAB are easily overlooked, despite the fact that they were run out of the building in each of them (average margin of victory: 20.7 PPG). So, how does all of this translate into a lucky year for the Trojans? Well, one of the statistics I have been tracking this year is to see which games have been won and lost at the free-throw line, by seeing what the score would have been had each team shot perfectly from the stripe. I could not believe my eyes when I checked to see how games Troy had won at the line: all four of them. That’s right, in every single game that Troy has won this year, they have been the beneficiaries of an awful free-throw shooting night from the opponent – so much so that it has handed them the game. Now that’s the kind of luck you just can’t buy.
It’s getting hard to call the Mountain West a mid-major conference anymore. In the last few tournaments they have had multiple bids, and a few high seeds. Despite losing (#113) BYU to the West Coast Conference, this conference is still a national power. At the moment, the MWC has six teams in the Top 40 of the DPI – (#3) Wyoming (who passed another big test against Illinois State last night), (#16) UNLV, (#17) New Mexico, (#20) Colorado State, (#38) San Diego State, and (#40) Boise State. There is another team in the Top 100, (#86) Air Force, that could surprise a few teams, too. I expect that no less than four teams will make it to the Big Dance from the Mountain West this year, and as many as six could be playing in March. When you’re talking about putting six teams into the tournament, it’s hard to think of this conference as anything but a major one.
What to Watch on Wednesday (58 games total):
(#125) Florida State @ (#11)Florida
(#111) Memphis @ (#37) Ohio
(#60) Virginia @ (#128) Tennessee
(#85) Southern Illinois @ (#57) Western Kentucky
(#24) Stephen F. Austin @ (#46) Texas A&M
(#40) Boise State @ (#89) Utah
(#76) South Florida @ (#50) Oklahoma State
(#105) Dayton @ (#56) Alabama
(#20) Colorado State @ (#49) Colorado
(#124) Washington State @ (#10) Gonzaga
Sorry this came in so late – finals are hell. Anyway, go check out the Updated Tournament Projections and Top 100! Another update will be coming in tomorrow.