You could probably count on one hand the numbers of minutes I have spent watching bowl games over the last couple weeks. It’s obviously difficult to match the excitement of seeing whether Clemson will allow 80 points or whether they can get in the end zone to cut the lead to 40, but somehow I managed to keep myself entertained with a number of close games on the hardwood.
Things are only going to get better as conference play heats up, but for now, here are the latest risers and fallers in the college basketball world, starting with someone hoops fans in the Hoosier state will be very familiar with.
The Bottoms Line: Stock Up
After losing their first three games of the season to Washington, Portland, and Florida Atlantic, the Panthers and first-year coach Ron Hunter have reeled off 11 straight wins. The first nine of those wins are pretty easy to dismiss given the competition (all 238th or lower in the Pomeroy Ratings), but Wednesday night’s victory at VCU was impressive. They also beat Drexel in CAA play and are currently 3-0 in the league heading into a road trip to George Mason this weekend.
Hunter, the former IUPUI head man, has his team playing terrific defense and taking good care of the basketball. The offense hasn’t been particularly efficient, but they do have three double-digit scorers and nine players averaging at least 10 minutes and 4.0 points. Whether they can win the Colonial remains to be seen, but they have been one of the bigger surprises so far this season.
Image credit: Hyosub Shin via AJC.com
It’s not a stretch to say the Spartans are playing the best basketball in the Big Ten right now. They have won 14 straight and sit atop the conference at 3-0 with wins over Indiana and Wisconsin. After struggling mightily on offense during their first few games, Michigan State has really turned things around on that end of the floor, scoring at least 1.07 points per possession in eight of their last nine contests.
Keith Appling proved himself as a defender last season, and this year he’s added the offensive game to go with it. He was sensational against IU with 25 points, seven assists, and six rebounds, and he was the offensive during key stretches against Wisconsin. The Spartans continue to do a terrific job defensively as well as on the glass, which has been a staple of all the great Izzo teams.
Steve Alford’s club has now won 11 straight and picked up a couple key victories late in December on the road against New Mexico State and at home against Saint Louis.
Sophomore Tony Snell has really stepped up his game, averaging a team-high 13.9 points and hitting 44.8 percent from deep. That gives them yet another threat to go with big man Drew Gordon and guard Kendall Williams. Gordon has scored at least 10 points in seven straight games with five double-doubles, including efforts with 19- and 20-rebounds. Williams is starting to show flashes of the ability that made him the MWC Freshman of the Year last season, and Aussie guard Hugh Greenwood is playing well in the backcourt.
The Mountain West race should be entertaining with UNLV, San Diego State, and the Lobos all battling it out.
It was easy to dismiss Seton Hall’s 11-1 start after they got crushed by Syracuse, but the Pirates bounced back to beat West Virginia and UConn at home by a combined 31 points.
Senior Herb Pope is leading the way by averaging a double-double, and he seems fully recovered from the health issues that lingered with him throughout last season. They are also getting terrific play at the point from Jordan Theodore who boasts one of the nation’s top assist rates and has already been to the free throw line 82 times.
Outside of the Syracuse game, their offensive and defensive efficiency numbers have been pretty consistent. They’ve scored at least 1.05 ppp in eight of their last nine and have held 10 of their last 11 opponents to 0.97 ppp or less. Don’t be surprised if they win their next five Big East games.
The Owls have been up and down so far this season, but they looked terrific in a 78-73 win over Duke this week. It’s even more impressive when you consider they are without big man Micheal Eric, which leaves them just one player over 6-foot-6. Projected started Scootie Randall hasn’t played all season either, but the team continues to be efficient on the offensive end, thanks in part to 38.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
The trio of Ramone Moore, Khalif Wyatt, and Juan Fernandez has been terrific on the perimeter, averaging a combined 44.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 10.7 assists. The Owls haven’t been as effective defensively as Fran Dunphy’s recent teams, but they do enter Atlantic 10 play with plenty of momentum. Like the MWC, it should be a fun conference race to track throughout the season.
The Bottoms Line: Stock Down
A loss to Fordham would hurt any team, but the damage is magnified for the Crimson. Entering that game, they were 12-1 with their lone loss coming on the road to UConn, which really couldn’t be held against them from a seeding standpoint.
Not the case with the Fordham loss. So while I still believe Harvard is a virtual lock to win the Ivy League auto-bid, their best wins are against Florida State and Saint Joseph’s, neither of which is a lock for the tournament at this point. And when the committee evaluates the Crimson, they aren’t going to find many quality wins, but they will see an ugly loss to Fordham. The last set of bracket projections I looked at had them around an eight seed, but this loss drops them into double digits.
It would be a great story to see Northwestern finally make the tournament, but I just don’t see it happening. While their neutral court wins over Seton Hall and LSU look much better now than when they happened, they have lost to every other decent team they’ve played. Baylor and Ohio State beat them by a combined 61 points, and they lost on the road against Creighton.
But this week’s home failure against Illinois was a killer. The Illini are decent but have struggled recently and played without starting guard Sam Maniscalco, which for a team with virtually no bench scoring should have been a huge blow. So now the Wildcats are 1-2 in the league with their next five games on the road against Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota and at home versus Michigan State and Purdue. Given the team’s struggles on defense, a 1-7 start in Big Ten play is not out of the question.
If you were on the fence about Pitt heading into Thursday’s game against DePaul (I wasn’t), their last-second loss to the Blue Demons places them firmly in full meltdown mode. They have now lost four straight games and sit at 0-3 in the Big East, and the air of invnicibility at home is gone after three home losses. Their best win is against La Salle, and at least a couple of their losses came against teams that won’t even be in the tournament discussion.
The Panthers are salvageable offensively, but they completely lack the trademark Pitt toughness on the defense end, allowing each of their three league foes to score at least 1.08 points per possession. That’s not something you can easily fix at this point in the season, and the schedule only gets harder.
The Aggies were projected to finish at or near the top of the Big 12, but right now they aren’t even in the tournament discussion. Following Monday’s loss to Baylor, they are 9-4 with zero wins against anyone in Pomeroy’s Top 150. Seven of their wins have come against teams ranked 281st or lower, and they’ve also lost at home to Rice.
A&M’s offense has been brutal, scoring less than a point per possession in eight of their last 11 games. They are shooting less than 30 percent from three-point range, turn the ball over at a high rate, and rarely get to the line (although they don’t shoot well when they get there). The defense has been decent, but the lack of quality competition has played a big role there as well.
Injuries have played a role in the team’s struggles, but now freshman point guard Jamal Branch has decided to transfer, which leaves the inefficient Dash Harris as the only real option at that position. I just haven’t seen anything from them so far that suggests they will turn things around.
It’s tough to recall another team with a more precipitous fall, and the Musketeers have now lost five of six games since the brawl with Cincinnati, their only win coming against a terrible Southern Illinois team.
Jeff Borzello of CBS talked to some coaches about what they think might be wrong, and the numbers back up many of the theories. Xavier has allowed their last six opponents to score at least 1.02 ppp after holding their first eight foes to 0.98 or less. On offense, they have scored 1.01 ppp in five of the last six games after doing so just twice in their first eight.
Maybe the fight caused them to be less aggressive on both ends. Their free throw rate has dropped, they are forcing fewer turnovers, and they are allowing opponents to get more open shots to name a few things that support that claim. All that being said, they still have the talent to win the A-10 if they can right the ship, but every loss makes that seem less and less likely.