Archive | January, 2016

What to Make of the American

31 Jan

The calendar is turning to February and this season has been as unpredictable as any in recent memory.  Whether it’s the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or any other conference in the country they all have their questions and instability.  One of the most confusing conferences so far has been the American Athletic Conference.   The best team in the conference, SMU is ineligible due for post-season to NCAA violations and the seven teams behind the Mustangs are within a game of each other.

Cincinnati (16-6, 6-3) currently sits in a first-place tie with Tulsa but hold the tiebreaker over the Golden Hurricane by virtue of their 76-57 win over them in early January.    The return bout takes place in Tulsa on Feb. 18.   The Bearcats have an RPI of 58 but are just 4-6 against the RPI top 100 with their best win coming against VCU in December.  Even though they have six games remaining with teams in contention the only real chance at improving their RPI comes when they host SMU in the regular-season finale on March 6.

Tulsa (14-7, 6-3) has won six of their last seven and even though they have a slightly worse RPI than Cincinnati at 61, they have a much better strength of schedule 67 compared to the Bearcats 95.  Tulsa’s best win though is much better thanks to a win over then #9 Wichita State way back in November.     Frank Haith’s squad will have a chance to make its mark on the American with eight of its final nine games against the teams they are competing with.

Temple (11-8, 5-3) is the only team to not only hand SMU a conference loss but a loss overall.  The Owls jumped out to an early lead and controlled the contest in an 89-80 win over SMU just last week.   Temple is 5-2 in their last seven with the two losses being at Memphis and East Carolina by a combined five points.  They have played a strong schedule ranked 52nd but because of a weak non-conference slate, with their best win coming over Minnesota whose RPI is 216.

Connecticut (14-6, 5-3) have good peripheral numbers with an RPI of 67 and strength of schedule at 74.  They also hold a road win over Texas that is looking better and better and a neutral-court win over Michigan.  The Huskies have gone 8-3 since big man Amida Brimah went down with a broken finger in December, he could return next week, in time to give coach Kevin Ollie’s squad the boost it needs to close out the season.

Kelvin Sampson has his Houston Cougars (15-6, 5-4) in the thick of the hunt in the American.  They started conference play with three wins including a 27-point thumping of Temple on the road but then they hit the skids suffering a four game losing streak but have rebounded with wins over Tulsa and East Carolina.  With one of the worst non-conference strength of schedules in the country (336) and RPI in the 130 range the Cougars may have to win the AAC Tourney to sniff the NCAAs, but as of now they are in striking distance.

Memphis (13-8, 4-4) has the athleticism and talent to compete in the conference but with no top 50 wins and their best non-conference win was over a down Ohio State team and with and RPI north of 120 the Tigers might have to rely on the conference’s auto bid to make the NCAA Tournament.

Currently Central Florida (10-8, 4-3) is 6th in the conference but with no top 100 RPI wins, two losses to teams (Miami (OH) and Detroit) with RPIs over 200, a strength of schedule nearing 250 and an RPI closer to 200 than it is to single digits, the Golden Knights may have to run the table in order to make the NCAA Tournament.

The good news for the conference is the teams battling for position will have ample opportunity to improve and while SMU will have some input over where teams finish, it will be the seven teams behind them with the most to say.  Who finishes where is as up in the air now as it was six weeks ago, flip a coin.

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The Aggies Quietly Lead SEC

28 Jan

They aren’t Kentucky.  They aren’t Michigan State.  They aren’t Virginia but despite hearing much more about those teams, the leader in the SEC is ranked ahead of all of these teams, Billy Kennedy’s Texas A&M Aggies.

Even though they suffered their first conference loss last night at Arkansas the Aggies still sit atop the SEC(1 game ahead of Kentucky) at 7-1 and 17-3 overall.  The other two losses for A&M came at the hands of Syracuse just after Thanksgiving on a neutral floor and on the road at Arizona State about a week later.  Since then the Aggies reeled off 10 straight wins prior to last night.

One popular adage in college basketball is that to be successful in March you need senior leadership and good guards.  Billy Kennedy’s squad has five of them, four of which see significant floor time.  They are led by three guys offensively that coincidently did not begin their college careers at College Station.    Jalen Jones who transferred from SMU after two seasons leads the team with over 17 points a game, potential NBA draft pick Danuel House who averaged 15.8 ppg did the same after two seasons at Houston and for a team that ranks 12th in the country and leads the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.57, a graduate transfer from South Florida Anthony Collins leads the team in that category at 3.21,  which is good enough for 23rd nationally.  The Aggies are also successful on the defensive end, ranking 18th in the country in turnover margin at 3.4 and are 67th in the country in rebound margin at 4.5.  The SEC leaders have also gotten contributions from a trio of freshmen from Texas.  Tyler Davis and DJ Hogg from Plano and Admon Gilder from Dallas combine to give the Aggies 25.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.

A&M has wins over Texas, Gonzaga and Baylor in the non-conference portion of their schedule but it is the backend of the schedule that will tell the story.  They have Iowa State in the Big 12-SEC Challenge on Saturday as well as home-and-home with Vanderbilt, a road game at LSU and home tilts with Kentucky and South Carolina all before the SEC Tournament.

The Aggies may drop some in the polls on Monday after last night’s loss but the lack of pub doesn’t equal a lack of talent, they are after all leading the SEC.

Rice Firing a Part of the New World of College Sports

21 Jan

We often hear about how college athletics is becoming more and more like the pro game, whether that be football or basketball, good or bad.  The professional game is seeping more and more into the intercollegiate side of things.  So I was a bit surprised in the uproar over the in-season firing of Dave Rice at UNLV on January 10th.  Many saying it was not the right move to fire him midseason, and the school should have waited until the end of the year, and that Dave Rice was a nice guy and deserved better.

While I agree Rice was a nice guy, perhaps too nice for today’s college athletics.  His firing is just another example of the pro game becoming more prevalent in college sports.  Dave Rice returned to UNLV five seasons ago after being an assistant at BYU the prior seven seasons.   Rice was thought of as one of their own at UNLV, having played on the 1990 National Championship team under legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian.  It was hoped Rice would be the one to lead the Rebels back to glory, whatever glory would be.

In his first two seasons in Vegas Rice led the team to a 51-19 record and two trips to the NCAA Tournament.  While those numbers looked very good to outsiders, fanatics of the program would point out that the team never finished higher than third in the Mountain West and lost their first game in the tournament both years despite being a 6 and 5-seed respectively.

One thing Rice was always good at was recruiting, having recruited NBA first-rounder Rashad Vaughn, #1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and current five-star recruit Stephen Zimmerman to UNLV.  However many of Rice’s detractors would say that the recruiting classes never translated to success on the court as evidenced by the yearly decline in wins for the Rebels.

So despite having non-conference wins over Indiana and Oregon UNLV decided to make a change following losses to Arizona and Arizona State and 0-3 start to conference play with losses to Fresno State, Colorado State and Wyoming.  Assistant coach Todd Simon was named interim coach and the team has won three straight.  Whether that is a coincidence or not and whether making the change now was the right move or not, it is something you see in pro sports all the time if you don’t perform you are out.   Yet another philosophy that has made its way into college sports, get used to it.

Some of this Season’s Surprising Teams

21 Jan

In this season of unpredictability there have been quite a few surprising programs thus far.  Here are just a few of them.

Beginning in the SEC, Frank Martin’s South Carolina Gamecocks were picked to finish smack dab in the middle of the conference, seventh out of 14 teams.  On January 21st they are second in the conference (4-1) and are 17-1 overall.  Currently ranked 24th in the country South Carolina has exceeded preseason expectations by a longshot and with only two games remaining against current top 25 teams , at #10 and conference leader Texas A&M on Feb. 6 and welcoming #23 Kentucky to town a week later the Gamecocks can really rack up some wins before the SEC Tournament.  Despite going only seven deep on most nights South Carolina still has four players in double figures led by senior Michael Carrera and junior Sindarius Thornwell at 12.1 per game.

In the ACC, while the conference is pretty deep the surprise has to be Brad Brownell’s Clemson Tigers.  Even though the Tigers are 12-7 overall they are third in the conference at 5-2.  They began conference play with a loss at North Carolina, no shame in that, then reeled off five straight wins with victories over Florida State, Syracuse, #16 Louisville, #9 Duke and #8 Miami before being stopped by #13 Virginia.  With only a home rematch with Virginia remaining on its schedule in terms of ranked opponents Clemson has time to reset itself, build on a successful first half and ready itself for March.

Outside of the power six conferences there are a couple of teams that are having fantastic seasons that deserve to be highlighted.  In the Sun Belt Conference the Trojans of Arkansas-Little Rock are 15-2 and 5-1 in the conference.  During their non-conference slate The Trojans went 10-1 under first-year coach Chris Beard including wins over Tulsa, DePaul and San Diego State.  In fact they won 10 straight before falling to a team knows well, Texas Tech, a place he used to serve as an assistant.  After the loss they then won five straight to begin conference play before falling to second-place Arkansas State by three on Monday.  UALR does it with success on the defensive end, allowing over 60 points just three times this season and over 70 just twice.

At 14-4 and undefeated in the Ohio Valley (5-0) the Tennessee State Tigers could be a team to watch.  While their 9-4 non-conference record is far from gaudy with losses to Illinois State, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State and Ohio and their best win being arguably over Lipscomb, they are 12-2 since a pre-Thanksgiving loss to MTSU.  Coach Travis Williams, who has been with the program since 2009 has a senior-laden squad with five of his seven seniors seeing significant minutes has gotten off to a fantastic start in the OVC and has done so quietly and in the shadows of bigger conferences and schools.

With post-season play not that far off, these are just a few teams to keep an eye on to see if they can finish the season as strongly as they started it.

Will Kansas Big 12 Reign End?

21 Jan

The Kansas Jayhawks have had at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title for the past 11 years.  Seemingly for the past handful of years it has been openly questioned if this would be the year that streak would end, only to be proven wrong by Bill Self and his team.

Yet here we are again pondering if this could be the year someone finally knocks the Jayhawks off that Big 12 pedestal.  There are a couple of factors that could point you in the direction of yes.  First, there seem to be more suitors for the top spot than in years past as there are as many five other teams with a chance to lay claim to the title, with four of them currently ranked in the top 20.   Secondly, there is a team in Oklahoma that is not only challenging Kansas as the best team in the conference but possibly as the best team in the country as well.

Baylor is currently ahead of the pack at 5-1 and 15-3 overall.  The Bears three losses have come at the hands of other top 2 teams and all on the road (Oregon, Texas A&M) including a 28-point drubbing at the hands of Kansas on Jan. 2.  With two games vs. Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma as well as a return bout with Kansas remaining on the schedule, Baylor has ample opportunity to pull away from the pack.

Oklahoma is the current #1 team in the country with in all likelihood the leader for national Player of the Year in Buddy Hield but they sit a game behind Baylor at 4-2 and 15-2 overall.  The Sooners losses came at the hands of Kansas in a triple-overtime thriller and this past Monday to Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum.  They will get the chance to avenge one of those losses on Feb. 13 when they welcome Kansas to Norman.

One of the biggest surprises in all of college basketball is Bob Huggins’ West Virginia Mountaineers who were picked to finish sixth in the conference and currently find themselves 6th in the country.   They are 15-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big 12.   Before entering conference play they were 11-1, with their lone loss coming at the hands of then #10 Virginia.  Since conference play started the Mountaineers rattled off four straight wins, including one over #1 Kansas, before suffering back-to-back defeats at the hands of #2 Oklahoma and Texas in the last week.  They still have head-to-heads with Iowa State and Baylor and return match ups with Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas on their slate.

Speaking of Texas, they had one of the more high-profile hires in the offseason, wrangling Shaka Smart away from VCU.  As of now the Longhorns sit at 12-6 and 4-2 in the Big 12.  Of the six losses only one, to Texas A&M was over 10 points and since losing back-to-back games to UConn and TCU Texas has won 4 of 5 including three straight over Iowa State, Oklahoma State and West Virginia.  With plenty of meat left on their schedule (8 of their final 12 games are against current top 25 teams), if Smart can get his guys to come together at the right time they will most certainly have a say in who wins the Big 12.

Iowa State is 14-4 but is a full two games back of the pack right now at 3-3 in conference.  But the Cyclones have lost those four games by a total of 14 points (an average of 3.5 points per game).   But they also have wins over Iowa, Cincinnati and Oklahoma.

Look Kansas may very well prove us all wrong again as and win a 12th straight conference title, but if they do, they will have absolutely earned it this year with the amount and quality of competition looking to take them down.

No Dominant Teams is Good

21 Jan

Every once in a while at the start of basketball season we hear that there are no dominant teams and this could be the type of unpredictable season some wish every season could be like.  However usually by the time late February and March roll around there are at least a couple of teams that have separated themselves from the pack.

Then one year the stars align and whether you call it parity, unpredictability or something in between, it reigns supreme.  Welcome to the 2015-16 season.

The Associated Press Poll has now been out for 11 weeks this season.  In those 11 weeks there have now been five different teams ascending to the top spot.  The Year started with North Carolina at the top for two weeks, then Kentucky had its two-week reign, followed by a four-week stranglehold by Michigan State before Kansas had it chance for a couple of weeks and finally Oklahoma has been the king of the mountain since this past Monday.

Since Monday however five top 10 teams, including new #1 Oklahoma, and seven total top 25 teams have fallen, in three days.   Who knows what the total will be by the time next Monday rolls around but this type of instability at the top of the sport is the perfect storm some fans hope to see every season.  With conference tournaments just 5-6 weeks away be careful because the race to the top of the polls os both crowded and treacherous.

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