I’m sorry that there have been no updates recently. With the holiday plans changing last-minute, I haven’t had a lot of time to work on this, but here is the first of a four-part series breaking down the conferences as we enter the New Year. Over the next four days, I will be adding notes on eight conferences, in alphabetical order. I will also add some picks for each day. So, without further ado, here is the the first Conference Spotlight piece, from the America East to the Big South. (Tomorrow will be the Big Ten through the Metro Atlantic.)
DPI CONFERENCE SPOTLIGHT SPECIAL (PART I)
The Best Team So Far: (#112) Stony Brook (8-3, 0-0) – The Seawolves’ only good win on the year so far is over (#52) Canisius, but they played well in losses to (#42) Connecticut and (#29) Maryland. Tommy Brenton is leading the team in minutes played (31.0), rebounds (8.5), and assists (5.2), while Anthony Jackson and Jameel Warney are handling the scoring with over 12 per game apiece. Warney is averaging 7.5 boards and 1.5 blocks, as well, while shooting about 65% from the field. These guys gave Maryland a pretty good game, and look poised to sit atop the America East this season.
The Next Best Team: (#141) Albany (9-3, 0-0) – The Great Danes have already scored wins over (#134) Duquesne and (#67) Washington and, besides the blowout against (#24) Ohio State, have lost by three and two points in their other losses. They are doing well so far, but mostly against below-average competition, so it will be interesting to see if they are able to keep up this pace. Mike Black and Jacob Iati lead the Danes in scoring, and at the moment, they are head and shoulders above the rest of the America East Conference, aside from Stony Brook.
The Best Player So Far: Jordan Reed/G, (#313) Binghamton – This freshman guard is averaging 17.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Yes, this 6’4” guard is averaging just under ten rebounds, including a game against St. Peter’s in which he grabbed 18 boards, which leads the conference. Reed is second in the conference in scoring, notching double figures in all nine games he’s played in, including five double-doubles. Now he just needs to work on his free throw game – he’s shooting 58.7% on the year.
The Best Team So Far: (#22) Virginia Commonwealth (9-3, 0-0) – Shaka Smart and the Rams are off to a hot start in 2012, showing off their very talented six-man rotation against some big name teams so far. Despite losses to (#16) Wichita State, (#1) Duke, and (#18) Missouri, VCU has a few impressive wins under their belt. They beat (#59) Memphis on a neutral court, and they’ve taken down (#66) Belmont, (#73) Alabama, and (#95) Western Kentucky at home in the Siegel Center. Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham are the leaders in scoring and rebounding, while the duo of Darius Theus and Briante Weber have not only kept the point guard position solid – they have a combined 95 assists to just 39 turnovers on the year – but they are also playing insane defense, teaming up for almost six steals per contest.
The Next Best Team: (#32) Butler (9-2, 0-0) – Marquee wins don’t come much bigger than beating (#8) Indiana when they were the consensus #1 team in the nation. That said, Butler’s loss to (#101) Xavier is looking increasingly worse as days go by. On the flip side, their loss to (#13) Illinois is more excusable as the Illini have proven they’re a legitimate squad. Rotnei Clarke is leading the Bulldogs in minutes played and scoring, while Khyle Marshall and Andrew Smith are also providing Butler with solid play. Wins over (#89) Marquette and (#61) Northwestern bolster their résumé, and at the time being, the Bulldogs look like a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
The Best Player So Far: Isaiah Armwood/F, (#167) George Washington – While the Colonials are off to a very shaky start, the huge bright spot for them has been Armwood, a 6’9” transfer from Villanova. He is averaging 13.8 points per game, and leads the A-10 in both rebounds (8.9) and blocks (3.1) per game. In a three-point loss to (#35) Kansas State, Armwood put up a double-double and had 7 blocks. In a conference full of solid team play, the Colonials are relying on Armwood alone to carry them to better days.
The Best Team So Far: (#1) Duke (11-0, 0-0) – The Blue Devils are the best team in the nation right now, led by a stellar starting five of Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, and Seth Curry. Duke has played the nation’s toughest schedule and they are still undefeated, notching wins over (#6) Minnesota, VCU, (#28) Kentucky, Ohio State, (#4) Louisville, and (#39) Temple. The way these guys are playing right now, Coach K could be collecting his second national championship in the last five years. The only problem they have to work on going into ACC play is their rebounding.
The Next Best Team: (#21) North Carolina State (9-2, 0-0) – Behind Duke, the Wolfpack have been the best team in the ACC. No one else has been as consistent as NC State, except for perhaps Maryland, but the Pack have played the much harder schedule. C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown – who leads the ACC in assists – have led the way for NC State, owners of wins over Connecticut and (#51) Stanford. They look like solid contenders to take the ACC’s second seed in the tournament, but it’s a crowded pack beneath the Dukies. (#50) North Carolina and (#36) Miami (FL) could also end up in this position by season’s end.
The Best Player So Far: Mason Plumlee/F-C, (#1) Duke – Plumlee’s start to this season has been nothing short of remarkable. He is second in the conference in scoring with 19.3 PPG and leads the conference with 11.5 rebounds per game (fifth best in the nation). He is also third in shooting percentage, making over 64% of his shots so far. In wins over Minnesota and Ohio State, Plumlee dropped 20-plus points and 17 rebounds, coming up huge when his team needed him most. The senior big man has his team on track to contend for a national championship and is making his case for the Wooden Award.
The Best Team So Far: (#130) Florida Gulf Coast (8-5, 0-0) – The Eagles rebounded from a bad loss to VCU to open the season by beating a good Miami (FL) team. They’ve been beating mediocre competition, but their other losses have been to major-conference foes Duke, (#105) St. John’s, and (#40) Iowa State. Led by Bernard Thompson and Sherwood Brown, FGCU is taking a run at the Atlantic Sun crown this year. Brett Comer has been playing solid at the point, leading the A-Sun in assists on the year, and the Eagles lead the conference in scoring, field goal percentage, and steals. Florida Gulf Coast is also second in rebounding in the conference. It will be a dogfight with Mercer this year, but FGCU could be dancing in March if they keep up this play.
The Next Best Team: (#201) Mercer (7-6, 0-0) – The Bears have already scored big upsets of (#99) Florida State and Alabama – on the road in both instances – and they are hoping to slide comfortably into their new top billing in the Atlantic Sun since Belmont bolted for the Ohio Valley Conference. In order to outdo FGCU, though, Mercer will have to play a little more consistently – a 29-point loss to (#157) Denver immediately followed the win over the Seminoles. Recently, they have gotten a boost from Langston Hall, who missed the first five games, while Travis Smith leads the Bears in scoring. This team doesn’t score a lot – just 58.9 PPG – but they’ve held opponents to a 54.8 average, as well as a .393 shooting percentage. They are second in the A-Sun in steals and are the best free-throw shooting team (albeit at 73.5%), but they do not rebound or shoot very well. Despite this they are a gritty team that has gutted out a few big wins already.
The Best Player So Far: Torrey Craig/F, (#247) South Carolina Upstate – There haven’t been many standout players in this conference, but Craig has performed at a consistently high level for the Spartans. He leads the conference in scoring, and has three games of 27-plus points on the year. He has been held in check in games against tougher opponents, recording his fewest points in contests against (#53) Saint Louis, Kansas State, and (#47) Baylor – all losses. Still, he has scored in double figures in all eleven games so far, and could easily lead the conference in scoring through the rest of the year.
The Best Team So Far: (#4) Kansas (10-1, 0-0) – Well, if you weren’t sold on Kansas just yet, their victory over Ohio State on Saturday erased all doubts that this squad can play. Led by Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore, the Jayhawks are easily the conference’s best team. Bill Self has a great team in Lawrence this season, one that is shooting over 49% on the year and has reeled off five straight wins over Top 100 teams – (#77) Oregon State, (#20) Colorado, Belmont, (#81) Richmond, and Ohio State. The wins over Colorado, Belmont, and Richmond all came by 28-plus points, the win over the Beavers was on a neutral court, and they beat the Buckeyes on the road. Things are coming together nicely for the Jayhawks at the moment.
The Next Best Team: (#23) Oklahoma State (10-1, 0-0) – I think most people assumed Baylor would be in this position when the season started, but where the Bears have stumbled, Oklahoma State has jumped out to a great start. A 20-point win over N.C. State was impressive in the early going, and the wins over (#72) Tennessee and (#91) South Florida aren’t bad, either. Their only slip-up so far is a loss to (#85) Virginia Tech, who has had a very up and down season so far. Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown have been great for the Cowboys, but the show-stealer has been freshman Marcus Smart, who is averaging 12.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 2.7 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game. Smart is an early candidate for the nation’s best freshman player.
The Best Player So Far: Pierre Jackson/G, (#47) Baylor – Jackson is leading the Big XII in scoring and is second in assists, while also averaging almost two and a half steals per contest. The senior point guard has led the Bears to a decent 8-3 start and was instrumental in wins over (#64) Lehigh, Kentucky, and (#69) BYU. He also dropped 31 points on (#143) Boston College in November. Jackson gets to the line often, and his 25 three-pointers tie him for third in the conference – he ranks the same in free throws made and attempted, as well.
The Best Team So Far: (#3) Louisville (11-1, 0-0) – Russ Smith has been the catalyst for this Louisville team, and Peyton Siva, Chase Behanan, and Wayne Blackshear have likewise contributed solidly to this squad. They would certainly be helped out with a quick return from Senegalese center Gorgui Dieng, who has missed the team’s last seven games (starting with the loss to Duke) due to injury. It sounds like Dieng will be back for Saturday’s big rivalry game, when Louisville hosts Kentucky. He could be the boost the Cardinal need to solidify themselves as the Big East’s top team – and a legitimate candidate for a top seed in the Tournament.
The Next Best Team: (#9) Cincinnati (12-0, 0-0) – Had this piece been written this time last week (#11) Syracuse likely would’ve been in one of these spots, but after the Orange’s loss to Temple, Cincinnati is looking like the second-best team at the moment. Their win over Xavier was good – better still that it came with no brawls – and wins over Iowa State, (#37) Oregon, and Alabama aren’t too shabby, either. They struggled this last weekend against (#144) Wright State in the early going, but recovered to beat the Ramblers. Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright have led the Bearcats to an undefeated season, but a big matchup happens tonight when (#12) New Mexico comes into town.
The Best Player So Far: Michael Carter-Williams/G, (#11) Syracuse – The Orange’s 6’6” sophomore point guard has been stealing the show in Syracuse so far this season. He is scoring a modest 12.4 points per game, which is good for fourth on his team, but he leads the Big East in assists and steals. In fact, Carter-Williams leads the nation by almost two full assists – his 10.3 per game is followed by UCLA’s Larry Drew, with 8.5) – and he trails only VCU’s Briante Weber for steals on the season. He has been the steady while Brandon Triche, James Southerland, and C.J. Fair take turns having big games.
The Best Team So Far: (#97) Weber State (6-3, 2-0) – The only Top 100 team in the conference, the Wildcats look poised to claim another Big Sky title this season. Despite the loss of NBA rookie sensation Damian Lillard, Weber State has jumped out to a good start. They lead the Big Sky in scoring, while also giving up the second-fewest points per game. They also have an impressive win over (#48) Dayton under their belts, and losses to (#71) Utah State and BYU aren’t all that bad. Davion Berry has done a lot of the heavy lifting, as well as Kyle Tresnak, who came up big in an overtime win over Portland State this weekend.
The Next Best Team: (#172) Montana (6-4, 2-0) – Montana’s losses to (#26) Colorado State and BYU are easily overlooked, but losses to (#160) San Francisco and (#163) South Dakota State – the latter thanks to some poor free-throw shooting at the end of the game – keep the Grizzlies from looking like the Big Sky’s top team. Led by Kareem Jamar and Mathias Ward, Montana has already won their first two conference games, but will have almost two full weeks off before they square off with Eastern Washington.
The Best Player So Far: Justin Crosgile/G, (#296) Eastern Washington – Crosgile has been doing it all for the Eagles of EWU so far this year. He is fifth in the conference in scoring, and leads the Big Sky in assists, with 5.5 per game. He also collects almost six rebounds nightly – not bad for a 5’11” guard. His 1.7 steals per game also rank him fifth in the Big Sky. Perhaps most importantly for Eastern Washington, Crosgile stays on the floor, averaging fewer than one foul per game in 36 minutes.
The Best Team So Far: (#162) Gardner-Webb (8-6, 0-0) – Give the Bulldogs credit – they’ve played a pretty tough schedule so far, with losses to North Carolina, (#33) Iowa, and Illinois, and a win over (#78) DePaul. Their loss to the Illini came by a measly point, losing on a buzzer-beater back in November. Donta Harper has led GWU this season, leading them in scoring and minutes played, and the 6’6” swingman is second on the team in rebounds and assists. Gardner-Webb does not shoot the ball all too well, though, so they’ll need to work on that in order to stave off the rest of the Big South.
The Next Best Team: (#200) Winthrop (5-5, 0-0) – The Eagles are the only other squad in the Big South that doesn’t have a losing record, so I figured I’d put them in this spot. Led by Derrick Henry, Winthrop has stumbled out to a 5-5 start. Their losses to (#104) Indiana State, VCU, and Ohio State aren’t too bad, and wins on the road over (#109) Ohio and (#195) Auburn were important for the team to keep confidence. The Eagles are nearly last in the nation is assists per game, however, and they don’t really perform very well in any statistical category. Three of their wins have come over non-Division I opponents, so it might be a little early to take Winthrop too seriously in the conference.
The Best Player So Far: Stan Okoye/F, (#275) VMI – Okoye is leading the Big South in scoring and is second in rebounding, notching 19.3 and 9.2 per game, respectively. Despite only being 6’6”, Okoye has shown the ability to crash the boards nicely while failing to score in double digits only once all season. He dropped 31 and 8 on (#205) Army, 30 and 16 against (#168) Elon, and 29 and 11 versus (#241) Morgan State. Unfortunately, he’s the only one doing much on VMI, and the Keydets have limped to a 4-7 start.
So, there you have it: the first installment of the Year-End DPI Conference Spotlight Special. Come back around tomorrow to see eight more conferences broken down. Now, for Thursday’s picks.
What to Watch on Thursday (11 games total):
NOTE: From now on, I’ll just list every game involving a Top 100 team, and then put the predicted winner in boldface.
(#249) Texas Southern @ (#79) Akron
(#322) Alcorn State @ (#52) Canisius
(#186) Florida International @ (#95) Western Kentucky
(#240) Northern Arizona @ (#69) BYU
(#146) Rhode Island @ (#88) Saint Mary’s
(#12) New Mexico @ (#9) Cincinnati
Alright, now go check out the updated Tournament Projections and Complete Standings to see where your team is after a long holiday.