OK, this Holiday season has been crazy, so excuse the delay in updates. Here is Part III of the Conference Spotlight:
The Best Team So Far: (#80) Akron (8-4, 0-0) – The Zips have rolled out to a quick start in their nonconference season, holding the best record in the MAC as of Monday. They are currently the conference’s only Top 100 team, and behind big man Zeke Marshall, will look to continue their winning ways in 2013. Marshall leads the team in scoring and rebounds, and the senior 7-footer leads the MAC in blocks with 3.8 per game. Akron’s best win is over (#41) Middle Tennessee, but played (#22) Oklahoma State close in an overtime loss. Demetrius Treadwell and Alex Abreu have also been good for a team who also has a loss to (#8) Creighton on their résumé.
The Next Best Team: (#121) Ohio (8-5, 0-0) – The Bobcats made a lot of noise last season, reaching the Sweet 16 as a 13-seed behind D.J. Cooper and Walter Offutt, their dangerous backcourt duo. These two return as seniors this season, and they’ve got Ohio off to a pretty good start. The Bobcats started the year 6-0, but have dropped five of their last seven contests, including their four first road contests. Their best wins are over (#105) Richmond and (#122) St. Bonaventure, while their worst losses were to (#168) Robert Morris and (#192) Winthrop. A loss to (#43) Oklahoma on Saturday was their final nonconference test, one in which they didn’t really impress. I still think this team should challenge for the MAC title this year, however.
The Best Player So Far: D.J. Cooper/G, (#121) Ohio – Cooper is leading the Bobcats in scoring at 14.3 points per game, as well as leading the MAC in assists with 7.8 per game. He is a full two assists ahead of the MAC’s next best offering, Alex Abreu. He has an assist-to-turnover ratio above 2.0, and is also averaging over a steal and a half per game. His best game was a 23-point, 10-assist, 7-rebound performance in a loss to (#91) Massachusetts. Cooper must work on his shooting, especially from the free throw line (70%), but at the moment, his team play has been keeping Ohio competitive, and should do the same throughout the rest of the season.
The Best Team So Far: (#160) North Carolina Central (6-7, 1-0) – The only Top 200 team in the conference, the Eagles have been helped out by solid seasons from Jeremy Ingram and Stanton Kidd in the early going. Kidd is leading the team in rebounds and is second in scoring, while Ingram has been the most prolific scorer on NCCU. The Eagles don’t have any marquee wins to speak of, but they’ve also played perhaps the MEAC’s toughest schedule, already going toe-to-toe with (#13) Wichita State, (#24) Wyoming, (#108) Eastern Kentucky, and (#71) Marquette. They could score a big win against Winthrop on January 2nd before resuming their MEAC season on the 12th, facing the Rattlers of (#314) Florida A&M.
The Next Best Team: (#214) Savannah State (5-7, 0-1) – For a team that went 2-56 over the course of two seasons less than a decade ago, the Tigers have really made a lot of improvements. They are still not the best team in the country by any stretch of the imagination, but their turnaround has been pleasant to watch. Rashad Hassan and Preston Blackman are the leading scorers on the team, with Blackman leading the charge in assists and Hassan being the second-leading rebounder on the squad. The Tigers have wins over (#102) Western Illinois and Robert Morris, and pretty respectable losses to Middle Tennessee, (#101) UCF, Florida, (#20) Ohio State, and Marquette. They’ve got a rematch with WIU and a game against (#55) Saint Louis before they resume MEAC play.
The Best Player So Far: Adrien Coleman/F, (#304) Bethune-Cookman – The Wildcats’ 6’5” junior leading the MEAC in scoring and is third in rebounds. Despite Bethune-Cookman’s poor start this season – they are 5-9 overall and 0-1 in the MEAC – Coleman has been playing very well. In a game against a non-Division I opponent, he recorded a triple-double with 18 points, 15 boards, and 10 assists. He also put up 31 and 13 against (#347) Nebraska-Omaha, and has four double-doubles total on the year. Coleman will need a little help from his teammates, however, if the Wildcats are going to be able to do anything important in the MEAC this season.
The Best Team So Far: (#8) Creighton (12-1, 1-0) – Led by preseason All-American Doug McDermott, the Blue Jays look like a legitimate contender this year. They already have wins over (#50) Wisconsin, (#28) Arizona State, (#87) Saint Joe’s, (#96) Nebraska, Akron, and (#64) California – a pretty good résumé for a mid-major school, no matter how established the program. The only blemish so far is a loss at home to (#40) Boise State, who is having a pretty good year in their own right. Seniors Gregory Echenique and Grant Gibbs have played well in support of McDermott, and the Blue Jays look very likely to bring home another MVC title.
The Next Best Team: (#13) Wichita State (12-1, 1-0) – If there is any team in the Missouri Valley Conference who can keep up with Creighton, it’s the Shockers of Wichita State. The only big question mark is if they will be able to survive the losses of big man Carl Hall, who was the undisputed leader of this team during its first ten games, and Ron Baker. Cleanthony Early will have to pick up the slack, as well as newly-appointed started Tekele Cotton, who joins a solid cast of guards in Malcolm Armstead and Demetric Williams. Recent wins without Hall over (#63) Southern Miss and (#109) Northern Iowa are good indicators that Wichita will still contend for the Valley this season.
The Best Player So Far: Doug McDermott/F, (#8) Creighton – There isn’t a lot this guy can’t do. He plays wells inside and out, shooting 55% overall, 88% from the line, and 50% from downtown. McDermott is also leading the MVC in scoring at 22.5 points per game, and he dropped 30 against Akron, hitting 6-of-8 on three. He had 34 and 9 against California, dominating on the road. Jackie Carmichael of (#57) Illinois State is having a good campaign, but McDermott is playing at such a high level right now that there is no other choice but him for the MVC’s top player.
The Best Team So Far: (#15) New Mexico (13-1, 0-0) – I had my doubts for a while, but I think this team is legit. Though they lost to (#153) South Dakota State behind a ridiculous Nate Wolters performance, they came back with a win on the road against (#14) Cincinnati that proved they belonged in the national ranks. Wins over (#104) Davidson, (#86) Illinois-Chicago, (#99) George Mason, (#38) Connecticut, (#82) Indiana State, (#143) USC, (#116) Valparaiso, and two wins over (#155) New Mexico State make up an impressive resume of playing some of the top competition the smaller conferences have to offer. Kendall Williams, Tony Snell, and Alex Kirk have been the big three doing work for the Lobos this year, and they look like they will challenge for the MWC crown.
The Next Best Team: (#25) San Diego State (11-2, 0-0) – This was a tough decision between the Aztecs and (#23) UNLV, but the Rebels have looked shaky without Mike Moser, barely squeaking past California and (#126) UTEP on the road before losing to (#37) North Carolina on Saturday. The Aztecs, meanwhile, have losses only to (#11) Syracuse and (#3) Arizona on the year. Led by Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, SDSU has wins over USC, (#35) UCLA, and Indiana State on the season, and only fell to the U of A by a point. The date circled on every Aztec fan’s calendar is January 16, when UNLV comes to town in the first big MWC matchup for San Diego State.
The Best Player So Far: Jamaal Franklin/G, (#25) San Diego State – Franklin has been outstanding this year, leading his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals, and is the second best shot-blocker on the Aztecs. It was between Franklin and UNLV freshman sensation Anthony Bennett for top honors in the MWC, but my nod goes to the guard from San Diego State. In the win over UCLA, he put in 28 points and had 7 rebounds, and had a 19-and-15 game against Indiana State. Despite being unable to get his own offensive game going against Arizona, he did record a season-high six assists against the Wildcats, to go along with nine points and eight boards.
The Best Team So Far: (#158) Wagner (6-5, 0-0) – The Seahawks have consistently been a top team in the Northeast Conference, and this year should be no different. Jonathon Williams, the team’s top scorer and rebounder, has led Wagner during a season of very close games, as well as assists leader Kenneth Ortiz. They have played in four overtime games so far, going 3-1 in them, and have two other games which were within three points, going 1-1 in those. Losses to Syracuse, (#42) Temple, and (#62) Santa Clara aren’t too disappointing, although a win over (#145) SMU is the best part of the résumé so far. Wagner looks to continue their run of good luck in winning the close ones.
The Next Best Team: (#159) Bryant University (7-4, 0-0) – After opening the year with crushing defeats at the hands of (#9) Indiana and (#111) Providence, the Bulldogs have responded by going 7-2, with victories over (#147) Boston College and (#94) Lehigh under their belts. Dyami Starks and Alex Francis have been the best players for Bryant, who – despite being the newest team in the NEC – own one of the conference’s best records. They start NEC play against one of the conference’s other top squads, Robert Morris, in a game that will set the tone for what should be a season wrought with parity in the Northeast.
The Best Player So Far: Jamal Olasewere/F, (#256) Long Island – With the devastating news that LIU’s star player, Julian Boyd, would miss the season with a torn ACL after only eight games, Olasewere really needed to step up for the Blackbirds – and he has. He is averaging almost 19 points on the season to go along with about seven and a half rebounds, and over their last three games, he’s been at 20 and 9. One knock on Olasewere is that he fouls too often, averaging 3.4 per game, and it has limited his playing time to just over 28 minutes per contest. Still, he has been the best player in a somewhat weak NEC. Matt Hunter, of Central Connecticut State, and Jalen Cannon, of St. Francis (NY), were other candidates.
The Best Team So Far: (#74) Murray State (9-3, 0-0) – The Racers might not have the highest DPI in the Ohio Valley Conference, but I think the perennial standouts in the OVC will retain that distinction this year. Led by two conference player of the year candidates in Isaiah Canaan and Ed Daniel, the Racers have jumped out to a nice start on the year, winning games over (#106) Saint John’s and (#68) Western Kentucky. Their only losses have come to (#19) Colorado, (#78) Dayton, and Valparaiso, the latter two coming in their last two contests. Despite these two slip-ups, I think that Canaan – a likely first-round draft pick next April – and Daniel will lead Murray State back to the NCAA Tournament in March.
The Next Best Team: (#65) Belmont (9-4, 0-0) – This was a tough call, as Belmont and Murray State have both looked like pretty great squads so far this year, right now my gut says the Racers have the better team, despite the DPI rating. There’s not a lot of separation, though. Ian Clark, Kerron Johnson, and Trevor Noack are the trio that makes Belmont tick, and Clark could potentially be the OVC player of the year. The Bruins’ losses to (#18) VCU, (#4) Kansas, and UCF are pretty easy to overlook, while wins over (#61) Stanford, Middle Tennessee, and South Dakota State look nice. Belmont and Murray State meet only once this season, so mark February 7th on your calendars.
The Best Player So Far: Ed Daniel/F, (#74) Murray State – While Isaiah Canaan receives most of the hype for the Racers – and not undeservedly, being the OVC’s top scorer at 22.5 PPG – perhaps their most important player has been Ed Daniel. The senior forward has increased his scoring by almost ten points and five rebounds per game this season, despite only getting five more minutes a night. Daniel leads the OVC in rebounding now, and is third in blocks per game. Daniel’s 59.5% shooting is second in the conference, as well, and he has provided Murray State a second legitimate threat behind Canaan, which has been necessary when Canaan’s shot is not falling.
The Best Team So Far: (#3) Arizona (12-0, 0-0) – Arizona already had a pretty good team going into this season before Mark Lyons transferred from (#119) Xavier to Tucson. He has provided a steady hand at the point so far this year, even if that is not his most natural position. Solomon Hill and Nick Johnson have been good contributors, while Kevin Parrom has had a few big games when his team needed them. The Wildcats are undefeated and have wins over UTEP, (#172) Texas Tech, Southern Miss, (#90) Clemson, (#10) Florida, (#33) Miami (FL), and San Diego State. That’s a pretty good set of victories, and Sean Miller has this team playing tough down the stretch in close games, as proven by the one-point wins over Florida and San Diego State – their two toughest opponents.
The Next Best Team: (#19) Colorado (10-2, 0-0) – Despite missteps on the road against (#24) Wyoming and Kansas, Colorado has put together a pretty good season up to this point. Consecutive wins over Dayton, (#48) Baylor, and Murray State, plus in-state wins over (#93) Air Force and (#36) Colorado State at home, prove that these guys can hang with some pretty tough teams. The game in Lawrence looked terrible for the Buffaloes, I’ll admit, but the Wyoming game was closer than the score indicates, and the Cowboys are undefeated this year. This spot could be filled by as many as five or six different teams before year’s end, but right now Colorado is playing like the conference’s second-best team behind Arizona.
The Best Player So Far: Andre Roberson/F , (#19) Colorado – Leading the charge for the Buffaloes has been Andre Roberson, who, despite being the team’s fourth-leading scorer at 12.1 PPG, is leading the Pac-12 in rebounding with 12.1 per game. He also averages a block and a half and over two steals per contest, which are both good for Top 10 spots in the conference. Against (#213) Fresno State, he had 17 points and 20 rebounds and he scored a season-high 18 points and took down 13 boards against Air Force. The 6’7” junior may not be as prolific a scorer as Allen Crabbe of California, but he has been invaluable to the Buffaloes for his rebounding presence, and is perhaps the main reason they are doing so well this year.
The Best Team So Far: (#51) Bucknell (12-2, 0-0) – Although they only have two losses on the season, I’m surprised that they came to (#113) Penn State and (#191) Princeton. The Bison have beaten (#120) Purdue, George Mason, New Mexico State, and (#77) La Salle, however, as well as Friday’s 20-point drubbing of (#134) Loyola (MD). They face a huge test when they go to play (#21) Missouri on January 5th in their final nonconference matchup. Mike Muscala and company will look to pull the big upset on the Tigers, and right now, they seem to have the inside track on Lehigh for top billing in the Patriot League. It will be a yearlong dogfight, though.
The Next Best Team: (#94) Lehigh (9-3, 0-0) – Preseason All-American C.J. McCollum is leading the nation in scoring this season with a ridiculous 25.7 points per game, while grabbing five rebounds to boot. He has four 30-point games this season, although the most recent came in Lehigh’s most disappointing loss of the year, a home game against Bryant University. The other losses came in early November to Baylor and (#16) Pittsburgh, two likely Tournament teams. Lehigh’s best win on the year is over Robert Morris, but they could score a huge upset of VCU on January 5th.
The Best Player So Far: Mike Muscala/F-C, (#51) Bucknell – Even though C.J. McCollum has been shooting the lights out in Bethlehem this season, Mike Muscala has been more impressive to me. He is second to McCollum in scoring, at 19.4 per game, and leads the Patriot League in rebounds at 10.6 and blocks, with 2.4 per contest. His 54% shooting percentage also nets him a third-place spot in that category. Muscala has eight double-doubles in 14 games and has five games of 24-plus points, including a season-high 29 against Loyola on Friday. The 6’11” big man is also an 81% free-throw shooter, which is always a plus for a guy his size.
Okay, I will try to get the last part out tomorrow. So the year-end special will also be a year-starting piece, I suppose. Anyway, go check out the updated Tournament Projections and Complete Standings! Happy New Year everybody!