Notes from December 7th
The Most Notable Game: (#27) Iowa State, 71 @ (#56) Iowa, 80
This was one of the only good games on a slow Friday, showing off the state’s two premier schools in a battle of squads who are off to hot starts. The Hawkeyes (8-2, 0-0) jumped out to an early lead, and led by as many as nine in the first half. The Cyclones (6-3, 0-0) responded with a 15-4 run to end the half, and actually led 36-35 at the break. Iowa State’s George Niang and Percy Gibson did a lot of the first-half work, while Aaron White and Anthony Clemmons led the charge for Iowa. An 8-0 run for the Hawkeyes started the second half, and that was pretty much the story of the game. They never gave up the lead after that, with Iowa State pulling only as close as within three points after a Korey Lucious trifecta (which Iowa countered immediately with a 5-0 run). The Hawkeyes went on to lead by as many as 11 points at home, and they kept the Cyclones at arm’s reach the entire second half. What was shaping up to be a really solid intrastate battle had a lot of the wind taken out of it, much like the Cyclones did, after the 8-0 go-ahead run. It was a solid team effort on Iowa’s part, with six players each recording at least 8 points, and they had 21 assists (on 30 made baskets), compared to only 12 turnovers. That’s the kind of ball protection and offensive efficiency that will continue to win them ballgames.
A Couple Major Conference Teams with Something to Prove: (#122) West Virginia, (#29) Wisconsin
There’s getting beat and then there’s getting destroyed. And then there’s whatever you call what happened to West Virginia in their opener against (#2) Gonzaga, a 84-50 joke that I had to look twice at before realizing that what I had seen was true. But okay, the Zags are really good and the Mountaineers (3-3, 0-0) were playing their first game without Kevin Jones and Darryl “Truck” Bryant, the senior leaders of last year’s squad. Deniz Kiliçli, a senior from Turkey, is stepping up into that role this year, but it has been a rocky transition. WVU also dropped games to (#141) Davidson and (#74) Oklahoma to start the year 1-3, and Bob Huggins could not have been pleased about either result. (Note: the loss to Oklahoma came in a preseason tournament, and thus does not count as Big 12 conference game – the two teams will face each other twice more this season.) Wins over (#218) VMI and in-state rival (#160) Marshall have West Virginia back at .500, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to keep up with the rest of the Big 12 this year, or if Huggins will have to suffer through a rebuilding season. Knowing the temper that Huggins can have, I hope for his players’ sake that they put it together sooner rather than later.
A team in not-so-dire straits is Wisconsin, who are a solid club, but have stumbled a few times already. Bo Ryan has been amazing as the coach of the Badgers, taking UW to a 268-101 mark overall, including a 132-54 record in the Big Ten, over his 11-year tenure. They have won at least 19 games every season under his watch, and they have been nearly unbeatable at the Kohl Center in Madison – entering this year, they had a 155-12 record at home with Ryan at the helm. That’s an average of about one loss per year at home – a ridiculously good rate. Well, the Badgers (6-3, 0-0) have already used up that one loss, having been beaten by an upstart (#50) Virginia squad in Madison last month. Their other losses aren’t quite so head-scratching, getting trampled by (#1) Florida and beaten squarely by (#18) Creighton. They did a lot to calm Badger fans down when they absolutely demolished a good (#51) California team by 25 points, but questions still remain for Wisconsin. Senior big man Jared Berggren has been their best player so far, and senior Ryan Evans and junior Ben Brust have been serviceable, but the Badgers could use a little extra push to put them over the top into true Big Ten contention. Perhaps freshman Sam Dekker is the answer – he’s been shooting the lights out and is averaging 10 points a game in 20 minutes off the bench. This is a team to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
A Couple Mid-Major Conferences That Got a Lot Worse: Colonial Athletic, Horizon League
The Colonial Athletic Association was a conference on the rise just a few years ago. Who could forget (#105) George Mason’s iconic Final Four run in 2006 or (#49) Virginia Commonwealth’s in 2011? Even fellow Virginia school (#307) Old Dominion has seen a number of 20-win seasons in the last several years, and (#266) Drexel is a team that I’ve mentioned before was considered a Tournament snub last year. The conference took a huge blow this offseason when VCU parlayed their recent success and entrance into the limelight into an invitation to join the Atlantic 10. The CAA lost a big piece of what put it on the map when Shaka Smart and his Rams took off for greener pastures. One would’ve expected that ODU and Drexel would’ve been fired up to have the inside track on the conference, but the schools have looked flat-out bad in the early going, limping to a combined 3-14 record to start the year. GMU (6-2, 0-0) has been pretty good so far, though, notching a win over Virginia, and taking (#15) New Mexico, (#24) Maryland, and (#37) Bucknell down to the wire. Even still, a conference that just two years ago had eyes on putting four teams in the tournament looks to be a solid bet for a one-bid conference.
Like the CAA, the Horizon League is another conference that is struggling to replace its best squad of the decade: (#93) Butler. Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs join VCU in heading to the Atlantic 10, and what they left behind is a bunch of just-okay schools. In the past, we’ve seen (#125) Cleveland State and (#68) Valparaiso make dents in the NCAA Tournament, but the days of Norris Cole and Bryce Drew are long gone. Drew is actually the coach of Valparaiso now, interestingly enough. These two teams are going to be the main contenders for the Horizon League crown, although (#40) Illinois-Chicago and (#118) Loyola-Chicago could have some say in that. In all, though, Butler’s rise to prominence is what put this conference in the public view, but in its departure for the A-10, much like VCU and the CAA, has taken much of the prestige and level of competition with it. It could make for more parity in the conference, however, and it does give some other teams a chance to Dance in March.
What happened to the Conference USA? I remember that before 2005, this was the conference that was teetering on major status. They were flush with teams like Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul, and Charlotte. In 2005, however, all of those teams bolted at the chance to join different conferences, as did Saint Louis and South Florida. Most went to the Big East, but a few headed over to the Atlantic 10. In fact, since the inception of the conference in 1995, only Memphis, UAB, Southern Miss, and Tulane remain – but those last two schools already have plans to leave for the Big East within the next two years, as well as the conference’s next-most senior affiliate, Houston. Kudos go to UAB and Southern Miss for sticking around, despite each of them seeing success in different sports in recent years. The 2005 additions of Tulsa, Rice, UTEP, and others gave the conference a much more southern feel than in years past. Some of those additions are already splitting for the big time, however – Central Florida and SMU have plans to join the Big East, too. In a few years, the C-USA will be adding Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, Old Dominion, North Texas, and Texas-San Antonio, as well as rivals Florida Atlantic and Florida International. It looks like they’ll also be getting Charlotte back in 2014. While some of these schools have burgeoning programs, none of them is strong enough to send the C-USA back into relevance. The conference will boast as many as 15 schools by 2014, but rather than a true super-conference, this will be much more of a haven of mediocrity and a place where misfit pieces go when they’ve outgrown their tiny conferences, but aren’t strong enough to contend in the major, or even high-mid major, ones. It’s a sad state of affairs for a conference which used to be a lot of fun to watch and produced a lot of NCAA Tournament teams.
What to Watch on Saturday:
(#125) Cleveland State @ (#92) North Carolina State
(#30) Colorado @ (#34) Kansas
(#118) Loyola (IL) @ (#46) Michigan State
(#122) West Virginia @ (#17) Virginia Tech
(#11) Ole Miss @ (#31) Middle Tennessee
(#100) UCLA @ (#156) Texas
(#29) Wisconsin @ (#97) Marquette
(#70) Clemson @ (#12) Arizona
(#93) Butler @ (#45) Northwestern
(#68) Valparaiso @ (#15) New Mexico
(#13) Illinois @ (#2) Gonzaga
And now for the Updated Tournament Projections and Top 100! Update may come late tomorrow – Ugly Holiday Sweater party tonight could lead to a late start tomorrow. Anyway, enjoy your Saturday! With all that amazing college basketball on, how could you not?