Notes from December 6th
The Most Notable Game: (#211) Vanderbilt, 66 @ (#57) Xavier, 64
Wow, I sure didn’t see this one coming. I listed this as one of Thursday’s games to watch, but in my heart of hearts, I figured it would’ve been a laugher, considering how Vanderbilt has looked in the early going. It’s quite expectable that at team would drop off after losing their three best players – John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, and Festus Ezeli – to the NBA Draft. The extent to which the Commodores (3-4, 0-0) dropped off, however, was a bit of a shock. Last night, they took a step in the right direction against a tough Xavier team. The Musketeers (6-2, 0-0) looked to be in control in the second half, going up by as much as 13 points with about 15 minutes to play. However, Vanderbilt immediately countered with a 10-0 run, and Kyle Fuller tied the game at 47 with a pair of free throws. Fuller had eight points in the final 15 minutes, and if not for a James Siakam missed free throw with a minute left, Vandy could’ve won this in regulation. Neither team scored in the final minute, but once overtime started, it was all Fuller – literally. He alone scored all 12 of the Commodores’ points in the OT period, including the go-ahead jumper and a three-point play that gave Vanderbilt a 4-point lead with 1:10 remaining – a lead they never gave back. Kudos to the Coms for sticking this one out, and major kudos to Kyle Fuller for taking the game over when his team needed it most – 20 of his 25 points came after Xavier took their 13-point lead.
A Couple Major Conference Teams Looking to Break Through: (#46) Northwestern, (#50) Virginia
Northwestern still owns the dubious distinction of being the only school from a major conference that has never been to the Big Dance. This is a bit perplexing, given the fact that they are mere minutes away from one of the country’s greatest havens of basketball talent: Chicago. Despite the fact that so many talented youths come out of this city, the metropolitan area really has not had a solid college program for a long time. All of the best Windy City kids end up going to bigger schools or to play for big-name coaches (Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade come to mind) and it really saps the talent pool. Bill Carmody and the Wildcats (7-2, 0-0) have been on the cusp the last three seasons, reaching the NIT each time, but they have yet to get over the hump. After losing seniors John Shurna and Luka Mirkovic to graduation after last year, one could’ve easily written NU off in 2012-13. They’ve come out swinging, though, behind Drew Crawford and Reggie Hearn, already tallying wins over (#86) Illinois State and (#80) Baylor. They did get pummeled at home by a pretty solid (#24) Maryland squad, though. Northwestern has the unfortunate privilege of playing in one of college basketball’s toughest division – the Big Ten. This year, the Wildcats will try to scratch and claw their way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history… and they’re off to a good start.
Another team quietly making a name for themself in a tough conference is the ACC’s Virginia Cavaliers. The Cavs (7-2, 0-0) are a bit of a hard nut to crack, though. They opened the season with losses to (#105) George Mason and (#216) Delaware, but also beat (#28) Wisconsin in Madison (which no one ever does) and outlasted (#146) Tennessee earlier this week, holding the Vols under 40 points (for more on Tennessee, check out yesterday’s post). Virginia is picking up steam, thanks to the efforts of Joe Harris (16.1 PPG) and Akil Mitchell (12.7 PPG, 9.7 RPG). They play a slow brand of basketball under the direction of head coach Tony Bennett, whose Washington State Cougars made a few tournaments earlier this decade. The Cavs made it to the NCAA Tournament last year and spent a lot of time in the Top 25, winning 22 games in total. It remains to be seen if this year’s iteration of the Cavs will be good as the last, but I certainly think that Virginia could catch some of the big boys by surprise in the ACC this year.
A Couple Low-Major Conference Races to Watch: Ohio Valley Conference, Patriot League
The Ohio Valley Conference has had some good representation in the NCAA Tournament in the last decade. (#74) Murray State has been the far-and-away dominant squad over this time period, but (#20) Eastern Kentucky has made a little noise, too. Now, with the addition of (#103) Belmont, who had cruised through the lowly Atlantic Sun conference for years, the OVC just got a lot stronger. (#204) Morehead State is another team that has made the Dance recently, but without Kenny Faried, the Eagles aren’t flying quite as high. (#120) Jacksonville State is actually playing some good basketball right now, as well, albeit with a weak schedule outside of (#19) UNLV and (#21) Oregon, two good teams that decimated the Gamecocks. Murray State’s only loss is to (#29) Colorado, and they’ve beaten a decent (#98) St. John’s team. Rick Byrd’s Belmont has a win over (#85) Stanford and only a loss to (#55) VCU on the season. The Colonels of EKU are undefeated, but they’ve yet to play anyone of any real talent – but a trip to Champaign to face (#13) Illinois is coming up soon.
Raise your hands if you remember (#36) Bucknell upsetting Kansas in the 2005 NCAA Tournement! Bonus point if you recall that the next season, they got a 9-seed and beat Arkansas! More recently, the Bison went to the Big Dance in 2011 and the NIT last season, where they scored an upset of Arizona. Bucknell looks to be continuing this string of solid seasons, jumping out to a fast start in 2012-13. Wins over (#128) Purdue and George Mason kicked off the campaign, and they recently put Kent State in their place. Their only flub so far is a loss to in-state rival (#188) Penn State in Happy Valley. Speaking of teams in Pennsylvania, the little babes of Bethlehem – the (#52) Lehigh Hawks – are enjoying a great beginning, too. They lost their only two real tests, their opener to Baylor and a game against (#22) Pittsburgh, but they’ve been playing well against everyone else. It seems that this year, the Patriot League is going to go through Pennsylvania; the only question now is which team will cutting down the nets in early March.
Perhaps I have underestimated how good (#2) Gonzaga and (#18) Creighton really are. The Blue Jays’ Doug McDermott and the Zags’ Elias Harris are surefire pros, and these teams have been playing awfully well to start the year. I still think that they will run into trouble later in the year because of the skill level in their respective conferences, but that should not wholly negate their accomplishments thus far. Last night’s obliteration of a (#73) Nebraska squad I’ve lauded in the past was eye-opening, and the way Gonzaga responded late in the game against (#134) Washington State was very impressive. I’m man enough to admit when I’m wrong, and though the jury is still out on these teams, I think my calling them “overhyped” was a bit rash.
What to Watch on Friday (11 games total):
(#158) Harvard @ (#76) Connecticut
(#37) Iowa State @ (#38) Iowa
(#55) VCU @ (#295) Old Dominion (Despite ODU’s rough start to the season, which I discussed yesterday, you can never count a team out in an in-state rivalry, especially when the Rams and Monarchs were conference foes before this year.)
Now go take a look at the Updated Tournament Projections and Top 100! Happy Friday everyone!