(Mostly) Midwest Hoops update

With college football’s painfully prolonged season ending tonight, and 75% of the NFL now on vacation, college basketball — which actually began two months ago — now finally takes center stage, especially here in the Midwest, where many storylines are intriguing:

 1. Purdue, who was on their way to a number one seed in last year’s tournament (likely in lieu of national champion Duke), playing as well as anyone in America until star forward Robbie Hummel went down in February, won their tenth in a row yesterday to quietly improve  to 15-1 (4-0 Big Ten) on the season.

Though the Boilers haven’t really played the strongest of schedules so far, that ends now with four of their next six versus ranked opponents, and the other two vs. pesky Penn State (just beat Michigan State), and an odd mid-January non conference game in Morgantown, West VirginRyne Smithia. 

Ryne Smith, a junior who didn’t see much playing time his first two seasons, has been outstanding lately. He’s averaging 17 points and shooting an incredulous 67% (18-27) from 3-point range against league opponents, and Sunday afternoon was the third time in four games Smith has made at least five shots from behind the arc. These efforts earned him Big Ten Co-Player of the Week honors.

“He’s been able to shoot since he got to Purdue,” a friend with intimate knowledge of the Purdue program told me. ” The players on the team have been saying for the last 2 years that he tears everyone up during practice.”

2a. Defending national runner-up Butler (#20 RPI) withstood 14 three balls from Horizon League foe Youngstown State yesterday afternoon, avoiding making a rough weekend in Indianapolis even worse, beating the Penguins 84-79 to reclaim their customary perch atop the Horizon at 4-1 (12-5 overall). The Bulldogs were in top form this past Friday night when they demolished a then 15-1 Cleveland State squad in an early conference showdown.

2b. Out of the shadows of Gordon Hayward and, to some degree Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard is making himself an NBA prospect. The cerebral but tough as nails senior has finally been able to transition to power forward with the emergence of sophomore center Andrew Smith. And with more freedom to roam this season, his fouls are down, minutes are up, and the senior’s overall stats are as good as anyone’s in AmericaMatt Howard.

3. The ACC is really bad, despite what ESPN and Dick Vitale will tell you in order to help the network’s ratings. As bad as the Pac 10 was last year, the ACC is worse right now — and the conference was also down in 2009-2010. The MWC and A-10 are better, while the MVC and Horizon are close to as good as the once-proud coastal league.

No team but Duke has been ranked since November, and as of now, the Blue Devils should be the only one granted admission to the field of 68 in March. I watched Florida State-Virginia Tech on Saturday ( two of the better teams in the conference, apparently) and the level of play was no better than UW-Milwaukee/UW-Green Bay, and nowhere near what I saw in person between Cleveland State and Butler Friday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The media will use cop out clichés and talk about the inane ‘eye-ball test’ to pump up ACC teams, as always, but the stats won’t add up.

Soon there will be talk about Duke going unbeaten. They’re very strong, and might, simply because they don’t play anyone. Duke is not a historically good team, however. Those teams blow everyone away, and Duke has not and will not. Their suspect #10 RPI #72 SOS explains a lot too. (Kansas is the only undefeated team to have played a worthwhile non-conference schedule.)

4. Missouri State and Wichita State ‘duked’ it out in a Missouri Valley Conference showdown late last night at an electric Koch Arena. The game was on ESPNU, and I hope some of you saw it, especially since I tweeted about it ad nauseam.  

Cuonzo Martin’s Bears prevailed, and after consecutive road wins in Cedar Falls, Omaha, and now Wichita, should be ranked later this afternoon — though it won’t happen, because the writers/coaches don’t do their jobs as thoroughly as bloggers like me who have other full-time jobs, yet still care about accuracy.

The wife and I plan to attend Wichita St-Creighton showdown Wednesday night in Omaha, provided we can get through 600 miles of snow, wind, and sub zero temps from Indianapolis in time.

Right now, in the MVC:

Bears 5-0…Shockers/Blue Jays/Sycamores: 4-1. The Valley is back!

5. In local NBA, Indiana Pacers beat writer Mike Wells tweeted after the Colts elimination Saturday night that “the Pacers can’t hide anymore.” Too bad, because after a 10-8 start that included wins at Miami and Lakers, they’ve dropped four in a row, seven of eight, are 5-10 since December began, and have just ONE win in the past 3 weeks!

A fourth lousy season on the horizon, Jim O’Brien’s job security is in peril, I’d think. The team travels to the coach’s home town of Philly tomorrow night to take on a team with whom they’re fighting for the virtual final playoff spot. With Dallas and Chicago at home, then a west coast swing beyond that, a 5th straight playoff-less season for this proud franchise (16 postseason appearances in 17 years from 1990-2006) is on the horizon if things don’t change.

Roy Hibbert, once in line for Most Improved Player, has been dreadful the past few weeks. Now he’s bickering and planning to see a psychologist.

6. Oh, and Indiana Hoosier basketball is off to a disappointing 0-4 Big Ten start. That’s rough, especially in such a good league. Put them in the ACC, they’d have half a dozen wins.

About AJ Kaufman

A former schoolteacher and military historian, A.J. now works in public relations. As an MSF columnist since 2009, he supports anything baseball-related. Raised in San Diego, A.J. has since resided in numerous parts of America, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio and Washington State. After departing the coasts in 2005, he's traveled the back roads of all 50 states and prefers the Heartland. Married to Maria, A.J. is the author of three books and enjoys reading presidential biographies.


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