Here is Part II of IV in the DPI Year-End Conference Spotlight series. This covers the eight conferences from the Big Ten to the Metro Atlantic. Tune in tomorrow for the reviews from the Mid-American Conference to the Patriot League. Sunday’s piece will cover the SEC to the WAC. (And I may even throw in a blurb about the two independents, just for fun!) Also, did you see that (#12) New Mexico win over (#10) Cincinnati last night? That went a long way to affirming the DPI’s high rating of the Lobos, who took a bit of a tumble against Nate Wolters and (#130) South Dakota State last weekend.
The Best Team So Far: (#2) Michigan (12-0, 0-0) – These might be the best Wolverines to roam Ann Arbor since the late 1980s squads. Big Blue already has wins over (#14) Pittsburgh, (#35) Kansas State, (#21) NC State, (#109) Bradley, (#59) Arkansas, and (#105) West Virginia, and they look poised to handle their business in the Big Ten. Trey Burke has been running the show, while Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III have provided Michigan with some very solid play. Nik Stauskas has been a huge addition to this team, joining the starting five as a freshman and shooting 55.7% from downtown. The Wolverines are shooting 51.1% on the year as a team, as well. This team is a legitimate national championship contender.
The Next Best Team: (#6) Minnesota (12-1, 0-0) – Tubby Smith has put together a solid team in Minnesota this year, and all that potential is starting to come together finally. Rodney Williams Jr. has been the most consistent this year, as well as the Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins (no relation). They are also bringing NBA prospect Trevor Mbwake off the bench, who is leading the Gophers in rebounds and is scoring about nine points a game in only 18 minutes. Their only is loss to (#1) Duke, and Minnesota has notched wins over (#83) Richmond, (#58) Memphis, (#51) Stanford, (#99) Florida State, and (#54) North Dakota State. They will contend with Michigan, (#8) Indiana, (#13) Illinois and (#23) Ohio State for top spot in the Big Ten, and will almost certainly end up with a top-4 seed this March.
The Best Player So Far: Trey Burke/G, (#2) Michigan – Burke is a special kind of player, a scoring point guard who provides a steady hand in the backcourt and has stepped up in big games. He has scored in double figures and recorded at least four assists in every game so far, and had a double-double with 18 and 11 against NC State in late November. He has an assist-to-turnover ratio of over 3.5 and he’s shooting 52% on the year. If Burke keeps this kind of play up, he could end up being a Wooden Award finalist later this year.
The Best Team So Far: (#86) Cal State Northridge (9-3, 0-0) – The Matadors are off to a hot start thanks to their best player, swingman Stephan Hicks. Northridge has also gotten solid frontcourt play out of Stephen Maxwell, while Josh Greene has provided stability in the backcourt. Greene leads the team in assists, and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of about 2.4. The Matadors are 10th in the nation in scoring, and they have wins over (#124) Tulsa and (#93) Utah. Their three losses on the year have come to solid West Coast opponents in (#66) BYU, (#48) UCLA, and (#27) Arizona State. Northridge looks like the team to beat in the Big West.
The Next Best Team: (#135) Pacific (6-6, 0-0) – The Tigers are doing pretty well to start the year, considering their strength of schedule, which is currently ranked at 14th in the DPI. Pacific has wins over (#103) Xavier on the road, (#80) Saint Mary’s on a neutral court, and both (#178) Nevada and (#166) San Francisco at home. Losses to (#44) California, (#7) Gonzaga, (#64) Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s (on the road) do not look too bad, either. Lorenzo McCloud is leading the team in scoring and assists, and dropped in 24 points in the overtime win over Nevada. Pacific starts their Big West schedule on the road against (#212) Long Beach State on Saturday.
The Best Player So Far: Stephan Hicks/G-F, (#86) Cal State Northridge – As noted above, Hicks is the best player on Northridge, and looks to me like the best player in the conference so far. He’s scored in double figures in every game and has five double-doubles on the season. He is shooting 53% on the year, and is third in the Big West in scoring (17.8), rebounds (8.5), steals (1.7), and free-throw percentage (86.4%). The 6’6” sophomore led the charge during the upset of Utah with 19 and 9, and has Northridge in position to win the Big West.
COLONIAL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION
The Best Team So Far: (#81) George Mason (7-4, 0-0) – George Mason started the season by alternating close wins over (#110) Virginia and (#196) Mercer with close losses to (#69) Bucknell and New Mexico. They’ve won five of seven since then, with the losses coming in early December by seven points to (#30) Maryland and by five to (#96) Northern Iowa in overtime. Two weeks passed between the loss to UNI and their next game, when they capped a 18-3 run to end the game against Richmond with a Sherrod Wright buzzer-beating three-pointer on a neutral court (in Richmond, though). Wright is the unequivocal leader of GMU as the only player scoring in double figures (16.9) and actually is more than doubling the next leading scorer, Johnny Williams, who averages 7.8. Behind Wright, the road to the CAA title goes through Fairfax this year.
The Next Best Team: (#174) William & Mary (7-3, 1-0) – The Tribe has been solid this year, but they don’t have any of the good wins that George Mason does. Their best victory so far is over (#184) High Point, but their losses aren’t too awful. They dropped three in a row to (#180) Miami (OH), (#131) Wake Forest, and Richmond – the last coming in a double-overtime thriller on the road. William & Mary plays (#132) Purdue and (#182) Vanderbilt – two wayward big-name teams – before continuing their CAA schedule. Marcus Thornton leads the Tribe in scoring, followed by Brandon Britt and Tim Rusthoven. The Tribe is 18th in the nation in field goal percentage, as well.
The Best Player So Far: Jamelle Hagins/F, (#187) Delaware – Hagins is averaging a double-double on the season, scoring 13.2 points per game and leading the CAA with 12.2 rebounds nightly. He also leads the conference in blocks, with over two per contest. In a tough loss to (#310) Lafayette earlier this season, Hagins had 18 points, 23 rebounds, and five blocks while playing every minute of the game. He also dropped in 15 and 15 in an overtime loss to in-state rival (#241) Delaware State. He has eight double-doubles on the year, including ones in the win over Virginia (10 and 16) and the Blue Hens’ close losses to Kansas State (12 and 15) and (#38) Temple (29 and 12).
The Best Team So Far: (#58) Memphis (7-3, 0-0) – This year’s Memphis squad got off to a bit of a slow start, but losses to (#19) VCU and Minnesota are not really bad at all. They beat Northern Iowa on a neutral court and then trounced (#112) Ohio by 26 points. The Tigers also held a lead over (#5) Louisville for much of the game, before the Cardinals rallied past them and won. Still, the three losses Memphis has suffered are quite forgivable, and they look to be on the right track now. Memphis has a solid rotation of eight players averaging more than 17 minutes per game, led by Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Tarik Black and Adonis Thomas. Freshman Shaq Goodwin has also provided some solid play, leading the Tigers in rebounding. They have three games left before C-USA play starts, most notably against in-state rival (#74) Tennessee.
The Next Best Team: (#82) Southern Mississippi (8-4, 0-0) – Led by Dwayne Davis and Michael Craig, the Golden Eagles jumped out to a 6-0 start to the year before dropping four of their last six. The level of competition they’ve faced has ramped up significantly, as these losses have come to (#122) New Mexico State, (#3) Arizona, (#89) Louisiana Tech, and (#16) Wichita State. They did open the season with overtime wins over (#77) Western Kentucky and (#176) Georgia, but the win over (#154) Denver is their best win since then. Southern Miss has dropped off quite a bit – they were #36 in the DPI a month ago – and needs to figure things out before C-USA play starts for them on January 9th.
The Best Player So Far: TaShawn Thomas/F, (#140) Houston – Thomas has reeled off a string of great games to open the year, recording six double-doubles already, on his way to averaging 17.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. He leads the C-USA in rebounding and grabbed 20 boards in the season opener against (#305) Florida A&M. Thomas has scored 20-plus points in five games this year and also leads the conference in blocks, with almost two and a half per game. He is shooting 52.6% on the season, but he’s a pretty poor free-throw shooter, hitting at a 62.7% clip.
The Best Team So Far: (#206) N.J.I.T. (6-5, 0-0) – The Highlanders have gotten off to a pretty good start, especially for a Great West team. The Great West does not get an automatic qualifier as of yet, because there are only five teams in this mini-conference. NJIT has popped out as the best of the bunch, although three of their wins are over non-DI opponents. They almost pulled an upset on the road against (#101) Providence to open the season, and also have Big East losses to (#104) St. John’s and (#61) Seton Hall. Their recent win over (#202) Army ranks as their best on the season. Chris Flores leads the team in scoring and steals and has NJIT looking like the biggest fish in a small pond.
The Next Best Team: (#287) Utah Valley (6-8, 0-0) – Well, Utah Valley sure does keep it interesting. Their last three victories have come after regulation, including three total overtimes in two wins over (#343) Troy. They also beat (#188) Pepperdine in OT earlier this month. Led by Ben Aird and Holton Hunsaker, the Wolverines have been quite shaky this year, but they’ve also played a lot of their games on the road, including losses to (#108) Washington State, Santa Clara, and (#95) Weber State. They kept up pretty well with (#70) Utah State as well, but eventually lost the game. Their first conference game is a big one, as they host NJIT on January 5th. Even in a conference that doesn’t get a bid, you have to imagine this game matters to both teams.
The Best Player So Far: Ben Aird/C, (#287) Utah Valley – Aird has been the big man on campus in Orem this season. The 6’9” center from Bountiful, UT leads the conference in rebounding (7.7) and field goal percentage (56.4%). He is also second in blocks (1.6) and fifth in scoring (12.6). He has had his biggest games of the season in the aforementioned victories against Troy, recording a combined 36 points, 20 rebounds, and ten blocks in the two contests. Aird also dropped 25 on (#293) Eastern Washington in a winning effort back in November. In fact, as Aird goes, so goes UVU – they are 6-0 when he scores 17-plus points and 0-8 when he doesn’t.
The Best Team So Far: (#62) Illinois-Chicago (9-3, 0-0) – After a loss to New Mexico in their second game of the year, the Flames went on an eight game winning streak to reach 9-1. This streak included wins over Mercer, (#63) Northwestern, and (#26) Colorado State. They’ve lost their last two contests to (#106) Western Illinois and Miami (OH), but still look like the Horizon League’s best offering. There is no singular star on this team, but Gary Talton, Daniel Barnes, and Hayden Humes have led UIC to their hot start. The trio averages 36.5 PPG combined, and Humes is a legitimate deep threat. The Flames start their Horizon schedule against (#179)Youngstown State after one last nonconference visit to (#258) Toledo.
The Next Best Team: (#127) Detroit (7-5, 0-0) – The Titans opened up quite a few eyes earlier this month when they mounted a furious rally against (#11) Syracuse and almost spoiled Jim Boeheim’s bid for his 900th career victory. If only their star guard Ray McCallum, who leads the Horizon League in scoring with 18.5 PPG, had been able to get a few more shots off, Detroit may have had a chance. He tied a season low with only nine attempts, and scored in single-digits for only the second time all year. Detroit has decent wins over (#149) Drake and (#88) Akron, and respectable losses to St. John’s, (#36) Miami (FL), Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The Titans will battle with UIC, (#137) Valparaiso and others for the Horizon League crown.
The Best Player So Far: Ryan Broekhoff/F, (#137) Valparaiso – While McCallum may be leading the conference in scoring, Broekhoff is the top rebounder in the Horizon League. He is also scoring 16.6 PPG, good for third in the league, and has been Valparaiso’s unquestioned leader this year. The 6’7” Australian senior has dictated how the Crusaders have played this year, with the team losing on each of his three lowest-scoring nights. He did, however, put up 24 and 7 against New Mexico in a loss. Valpo is still without a marquee win on the year, but Broekhoff has been their best piece and is keeping them viable in the Horizon League race.
The Best Team So Far: (#152) Harvard (6-4, 0-0) – The Crimson have gotten much better as the season has progressed after a 2-3 start. Those losses came to (#90) Massachusetts, (#98) Saint Joe’s, and (#224) Vermont, which are not all that bad, really. They’ve won four of five since, including wins over in-state rivals (#146) Boston College, (#183) Boston University, and (#253) Holy Cross. Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders have led Harvard during this stretch – in which their only loss was to Connecticut – and Chambers is an early Bob Cousy Award nominee. Mind you, Chambers is a freshman and is second in the Ivy League in assists per game. The biggest knock on the Crimson is that they rebound very poorly, currently ranking 300th in the nation. Still, they look like the best team in the league to this point.
The Next Best Team: (#190) Princeton (5-6, 0-0) – Harvard will be challenged this year by Princeton for the Ivy League crown. Led by Ian Hummer, the Tigers’ senior captain and a first-team All-Ivy selection last season, Princeton so far has beaten (#143) Kent State, and most recently, Bucknell. Losses to (#79) Rutgers and Syracuse are excusable, but they probably should’ve beaten (#191) Northeastern, (#225) Drexel and (#283) Fordham. Still, the Tigers are playing well at the moment, and a big test for them comes on Sunday when they travel to (#88) Akron for one of their final nonconference games this year. A win over the Zips would further solidify Princeton as the Ivy’s second-best team, and the Tigers always seem to do well in conference play.
The Best Player So Far: Ian Hummer/F, (#190) Princeton – Hummer has been Mr. Everything for the Tigers so far this season, leading his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and blocks. Despite fouling out against Bucknell, Hummer still scored 17 and grabbed eight rebounds. That is one thing Hummer needs to work on, however: his fouls. He is averaging three per game, and while he still is able to play 33.5 minutes per contest, it has to be a little worrisome how often Hummer ends up in foul trouble, given how important he is to the Tigers’ success. All in all, though, Ian Hummer has been the Ivy’s best player so far.
The Best Team So Far: (#52) Canisius (9-3, 2-0) – Led by Billy Baron and Harold Washington, the Canes have gotten off to a great start so far. Losses to Syracuse and (#17) UNLV were expected – although I did predict an upset over the Rebels – and losing to the best team in the America East Conference, (#114) Stony Brook, is not all that earth-shattering, either. Canisius has taken down two Atlantic 10 foes in (#120) St. Bonaventure and Temple, and are 2-0 in the MAAC already. In fact, after only two games, they are the Metro’s only undefeated team in conference play, showing the parity that exists in the conference. The Canes have a matchup with Detroit on Sunday which could give them an even bigger boost as they resume conference play on January 3rd.
The Next Best Team: (#120) Loyola (MD) (9-3, 0-1) – Not far behind Canisius are the Greyhounds of Loyola, who started out 7-1 on the year and were ranked as high as #34 in the DPI at the end of last month. None of their wins are very impressive – the best being against (#137) Albany and (#156) Rhode Island – but their losses aren’t awful, either. They lost to (#68) Washington and (#133) Florida Gulf Coast, before losing their conference opener to (#172) Niagara by a point. Dylan Cormier and Erik Etherly have led the Greyhounds in scoring in the early going, and they’ll need to keep it up against their two upcoming opponents, Memphis and Bucknell, before they resume conference play.
The Best Player So Far: Billy Baron/G, (#52) Canisius – Baron has been the catalyst for the Canes this year, leading them in scoring (17.6) and assists (5.3), while also managing to pull down 4.5 rebounds a night. His assists are good for second in the MAAC, and he is the fourth-best scorer in the conference. Baron was two boards shy of a triple-double against (#263) Marist, and put up a line of 30 points, six assists, and five rebounds against UNLV. The 6’2” junior guard is the definite leader of the best team in this conference, and at the moment, that is translating into a Player of the Year-caliber résumé.
I hope you enjoyed the second of this four-part series. Come back tomorrow for the third installment! Now, onto some picks for Friday.
What to Watch on Friday (30 games total):
(#211) Rider @ (#79) Rutgers – **Game already finished when this was posted; Rutgers wins 68-56**
(#114) Stony Brook @ (#61) Seton Hall
(#157) Iona @ (#98) Saint Joseph’s
(#69) Bucknell @ (#120) Loyola (MD)
(#82) Southern Miss @ (#201) Morehead State
(#322) Jacksonville @ (#8) Indiana
(#45) Baylor @ (#7) Gonzaga
(#222) SIU-Edwardsville @ (#53) Saint Louis
(#153) Oral Roberts @ (#58) Memphis
(#67) Belmont @ (#183) Boston University
(#18) Missouri @ (#48) UCLA
Okay, there you have it. Now go check out the Tournament Projections and Complete Standings. Have a good Friday, y’all!