Notes from December 21st
The Most Notable Game: (#55) Stanford, 70 @ (#68) Northwestern, 68
This was one of those games that will likely be scrutinized in early March, as both of these squads look like potential bubble teams. Northwestern has been on a roller coaster ride the past few weeks, having beaten (#35) Illinois State and (#47) Baylor, but losing to (#26) Maryland, (#37) Illinois-Chicago, and (#30) Butler. They survived an upset bid from Texas State earlier this week, as well. Stanford, on the other hand, had piled up three pretty meaningless wins, which were bookended by losses to (#8) Minnesota and (#23) N.C. State. Based only on the fact that this was a home game for the Wildcats, I picked NU to win this game. The Cardinal, however, jumped out to an early 32-14 lead, and it looked like my pick was going to be wrong from the get-go. Right on cue, Northwestern (8-4, 0-0) went on a 17-0 run to bring it within one, before John Gage hit a three-pointer right before the break. Robbie Lemons hit 3 trifectas in the first half for Stanford (8-4, 0-0), and added another at the beginning of the second, but that would prove to be his last bucket. Reggie Hearn had 14 in the first half for the Wildcats, but was noticeably absent in the later portions of the game after injuring himself on a layup attempt, ending with 18 points. Tre Demps was solid down the stretch for NU, scoring 10 of his 12 points in the final ten minutes, which included a three-pointer that drew the game even at 67-all with 1:50 to play. Stanford’s Aaron Bright hit a go-ahead three of his own moments later, and Jared Swopshire – who really needed to have a much bigger game for the Wildcats, especially after Hearn went down – missed a layup and one of two free throws in the final minute that would’ve drawn this one closer. Dwight Powell, who had a pretty quiet night in his own right, turned the ball over and gave Northwestern a chance to tie or win. Fortunately for Cardinal fans, Demps’ layup attempt with six seconds left did not go down, and Stanford walked out of Welsh-Ryan Arena with a good win for their résumé. This could be a killer down the stretch for a Northwestern team that his still never been to the Big Dance.
A Couple Major Conference Teams Have Something to Prove Today: (#16) Ohio State, (#5) Illinois
It seems apparent that Ohio State is a pretty dang good team. Aaron Craft has been a thorn in the side of many Big Ten teams for a few years now, but Deshaun Thomas is the guy that really makes the Buckeyes go. The 6-foot-7 junior forward is averaging roughly 20 points and 7 rebounds per game, including a 31-point performance against (#70) Washington in November. Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross have also been bright spots for OSU in the early running, not to mention Shannon Scott, who is averaging almost as many assists as Craft (4.7) and is getting 2.5 steals per game. The Buckeyes (9-1, 0-0) are in the Top 60 in the nation on scoring, shooting, assists and rebounds, and the only real question mark so far is their schedule. Their SOS was hurt a little bit when they didn’t get a chance to play (#105) Marquette in the season opener, due to poor court conditions on the U.S.S. Yorktown. Their only other game of note is a close loss to (#1) Duke at the end of last month, a five-point defeat in Cameron Indoor that left a sour taste in their mouths. They have reeled off five straight wins since then, and on Saturday they face (#10) Kansas in what should be a tremendous game. I’m concerned that they will not have an answer for the Jayhawks’ Jeff Withey, as the only player on the roster over 6-foot-9 is Amir Williams, a guy averaging just 3 rebounds in 15 minutes per game on the year. They will need to shoot the lights out and play some good defense to stay in this one, but Kansas has looked dominant in their past three contests, and at the moment, it’s really hard to pick Ohio State in that game. Even if they drop this game, though, I think Ohio State should still make some considerable noise in the Big Ten this season.
Another team looking to make some Big Ten noise is Illinois, but they will have to wait until after the Bragging Rights game with (#25) Missouri. The Illini (12-0, 0-0) are undefeated so far this season, and have pretty impressive wins over Butler on a neutral court and (#7) Gonzaga in Spokane, but the list ends there. They squeaked past (#153) Hawaii in overtime, and barely got past (#160) Gardner-Webb – and they needed to hit buzzer-beaters in both. They were docked for winning those games a little bit, because had both teams hit all their free throws, the Illini would have lost in each instance. That luck, as it were, ends up costing them slightly in the Index. Don’t get it twisted, though – these guys are solid. Brandon Paul has been Mr. Everything for Illinois this year, leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. The 6-4 senior came up huge in their biggest game, scoring 35 points in the win over Gonzaga. D.J. Richardson – who hit the game-winner against Hawaii – has been a solid contributor, as have Tracy Abrams and Tyler Griffey (who hit the winner over GWU). They do have a size problem, however, as Nnanna Egwu is their only true big man, but averages under four rebounds per game despite playing 23 minutes. Rebounding is not a strength of this Illini team, and that could cost them against the Tigers on Saturday. Missouri is second in the nation in rebounding, thanks to Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers, and they’re averaging about nine more per contest than Illinois. I have trouble seeing Illinois win this game, but the way Brandon Paul has been playing in big contests, it’s hard to count them out completely.
A Couple Mid-Major Teams Who Are Solid Bets to Win their League: (#36) Canisius, (#89) Davidson
Canisius has jumped out to a solid start on the year, with wins over Atlantic 10 foes (#111) St. Bonaventure and (#67) Temple already under their belt. Their losses came at the hands of (#110) Stony Brook – who is enjoying a pretty good start of their own – and (#3) Syracuse. A big test looms for the Canes (8-2, 2-0) on Saturday as they travel to the Thomas & Mack Center to take on (#22) UNLV. This is the same Rebel team that relied on late-game luck to beat (#53) California and (#146) UTEP in their last two games playing without Mike Moser. The Canes are talented enough to pull off this upset, led by guards Billy Baron and Harold Washington. Baron leads the team in scoring and assists, and Washington is second in both categories. Big men Chris Manhertz and Jordan Heath have also been solid for the Canes. Interestingly enough, through two MAAC games, Canisius is already the only remaining team without a conference loss. While teams like (#120) Loyola (MD) and (#137) Fairfield have enjoyed decent-enough starts, the Canes look like the real deal, and are my favorite to win the Metro this season. No one is saying this team is statistically dominant, but they have a solid rotation of nine guys playing more than 15 minutes per game and solid three-point threats in Washington and Isaac Sosa. Canisius, of course, plays in a one-bid conference, so no matter how many wins they pile up before March, the only ones that will truly matter are the conference tournament games. The MAAC’s top seed has not gone to the Big Dance – nor have they even made the MAAC Tournament final – in either of the past two seasons, so perhaps it’s a curse for the Canes to look so good early on.
Though the days of Stephen Curry are well behind the Wildcats, Davidson’s reign in the Southern Conference seems to be making a comeback. They won 25 games last year and received a 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament before losing a close game to (#6) Louisville. Big men De’Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen are doing the heavy lifting for Davidson (6-4, 2-0) so far this season, both scoring in double figures and pulling in more than five rebounds per game. They have also been solid defensively with Brooks notching a steal and half every game, while Cohen is blocking shots at about the same rate. Davidson has a few tough games coming up as they face (#254) Drexel on Saturday, and then (#75) Richmond and Duke, before continuing SoCon play. So far this year, they have wins over (#187) Vanderbilt and (#96) West Virginia – part of why both teams are in mini-panics at the moment – and losses to (#4) New Mexico, Gonzaga, and (#31) Charlotte were to be expected. There is really no other team in the conference that is looking quite as good as Davidson, although (#166) Charleston could give them a run for their money. That said, being in a conference like the Southern Conference, like the MAAC, means that you can win all the games you want in the regular season – it’s the conference tournament that ultimately decides who will represent the league. For the time being, though, expect the Wildcats to have the SoCon’s top seed in March. They had to survive (#233) Western Carolina in two overtimes in the championship game last year, however, so it’s hard to say they’re a complete lock for the Big Dance.
0:05 – (#97) South Florida survives in 3 overtimes against (#235) Bowling Green: A loss that would’ve crippled one of the Big East’s bottom-dwellers was avoided when Victor Rudd scored the last five points of the game in the final 13 seconds. Rudd ended up with 29 points and 7 rebounds, while Martin Brock and Toarlyn Fitzgerald had big games, as well.
0:04 – (#47) Baylor staves off a good (#69) BYU team, wins by 15 in Waco: Yes, I picked this game incorrectly. Baylor has proven to me once again that if I think they’ll do one thing, they’re going to do the other. I’m keeping this in mind from now on. Pierre Jackson, Isaiah Austin, and Cory Jefferson were a stellar for the Bears in this one. Meanwhile, Brandon Davies’ 26 and 17 weren’t enough for BYU.
0:03 – (#211) UNC Asheville stuns (#100) St. John’s and pulls the upset in NY: The Bulldogs had a few close calls earlier this season, losing by 7 or less to (#73) Tennessee, (#93) Providence and N.C. State, but they finally pulled the trick on SJU Friday. Jeremy Atkinson went into beast mode, ending with 31 points and 9 rebounds.
0:02 – (#48) Middle Tennessee rallies against (#187) Vanderbilt in Nashville: Vandy only scored 3 points in the last 8:30 of this game, while Middle Tennessee scored 16, erasing a nine-point deficit and securing for themselves the momentary distinction of being the best team in the state – although the Vols are starting to heat up a little. Bruce Massey was big for the Blue Raiders tonight, and Tweety Knight scored the go-ahead bucket, eventually spoiling the Commodores’ Kedren Johnson‘s 25-point effort.
0:01 – (#102) Cal State Northridge comes back from 21 down to beat (#99) Utah: The one upset I actually called correctly yesterday! The Utes helped me out by squandering a huge halftime lead at home, and Stephan Hicks and Landon Drew were monumental in bringing the Highlanders back. Condolences to Utah’s Jarred DuBois, whose Chris Webber-esque timeout call – when his team had none remaining – cost the Utes a technical foul on their final possession with 6 seconds remaining, down only three points.
What to Watch on Saturday (110 games total):
(#3) Syracuse vs. (#67) Temple – Prediction: Syracuse by 14
(#41) Murray State @ (#61) Dayton – Prediction: Murray State by 3
(#126) Texas @ (#39) Michigan State – Prediction: Michigan State by 8
(#63) LSU @ (#105) Marquette – Prediction: Marquette by 5*
(#116) Florida State vs. (#31) Charlotte – Prediction: Florida State by 10*
(#10) Kansas @ (#16) Ohio State – Prediction: Kansas by 11
(#25) Missouri vs. (#5) Illinois – Prediction: Missouri by 4*
(#15) Florida vs. (#50) Kansas State – Prediction: Florida by 13
(#79) Bradley vs. (#92) Virginia Tech – Prediction: Virginia Tech by 8*
(#40) Canisius @ (#22) UNLV – Prediction: Canisius by 1*
(* – Upset Pick)
These are just the games I’m predicting. There are some other interesting matches going on as well – (#111) St. Bonaventure @ (#23) N.C. State, (#112) Evansville @ (#30) Butler, (#18) Wichita State vs. (#88) Southern Miss and (#6) Louisville vs. (#85) Western Kentucky, to name a few. I can only assume I’ll have a LOT to write about on Sunday.
You know what time it is now. Go check out the Tournament Projections and Complete Standings!