Last year at this time SMU had little to play for. The Mustangs were without their head coach Larry Brown for nine games during the season and were banned from postseason play for multiple NCAA infractions, including academic fraud. They continued to play hard despite the finality of their season and finished 25-5. They have continued that momentum into the 2016-17 season.
Brown abruptly resigned before the season and assistant Tim Jankovich was named head man. Also gone are leading scorers Nic Moore and Keith Frazier. But the Mustangs currently sit at 18-4 including an 8-1 record in the American, the lone loss being a two-point defeat at conference leading Cincinnati.
So how has SMU kept the ball rolling after last season? One word: defense. The Mustangs are 4th in the country in points allowed per game at just 59.4. It is not only the points but they hold opponents under 40% from the field and average almost 40 rebounds per game good enough for 29th in the country. They share the ball to the tune of nearly 17 assists per game while turning it over just 11.4 times per contest.
Offensively they are averaging over 73 points per game and those points come from a balanced attack with four players in double figures and another on the cusp at 9.6 points. They are led by junior Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye averaging 17.7 points and seniors Ben Moore and Sterling Brown 11.9 and 11.2 points respectively and sophomore Shake Milton pours in 13.5. It is those four guys and sophomore Jarrey Foster that pull in 30.9 of the team’s 39 rebounds per game.
Along with Cincinnati the Mustangs are the clear class of their conference and after a season of turmoil from start to finish SMU seems to be in line to show everyone what they missed out on last March.
In the three years prior to Coach Steve Wojciechowski’s arrival Marquette was hardly wallowing in losing seasons and bad teams. Now in his third season the program has his footprint with his recruits and his style and the Golden Eagles are turning the corner and looking for an NCAA Tournament bid.
In Buzz Williams’ final three seasons Marquette averaged 24 wins with two trips to the Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight appearance in 2013. In Williams’ final season Marquette finished 17-15 and at 9-9 in the Big East. After the season Williams jumped to the ACC and Virginia Tech and Marquette hired Wojciechowski who was a longtime assistant at Duke.
His first season as a head coach wasn’t exactly picture perfect with a 13-19 record and winning just four games in the Big East. The team struggled scoring, rebounding and nearly all aspects of the game especially during conference play where they scored 68 points per game but gave up over 76. In his second year Wojciechowski’s squad saw a seven game improvement finishing the season at 20-13 but again struggling in conference play finishing just 8-10. While the wins and losses showed an improvement, the team really improved offensively averaging 76 points per game and shot much better from the field at nearly 47%. The team still struggled to get stops on the defensive end giving up 74 points per game, but when they did get stops they were also much better on the defensive glass grabbing over 26 per contest. One of the reasons Marquette showed improvements offensively is because they had more scoring options. Last season they had five players average double figure points led by freshman Henry Ellenson who scored 17 and grabbed nearly 10 rebounds per game. Ellenson left for the NBA after his one season but the other four who averaged double figures; Luke Fischer, Duane Wilson, Jujuan Johnson and Haanif Cheathem have all returned for this season.
So far this season the Golden Eagles are 3-3 in the Big East with wins over the bottom three teams DePaul, Georgetown and Seton Hall. Through the first six games they are averaging 79 points per game but are still giving up over 76 per contest and still struggling rebounding the ball at just 33 per game is 307th in the nation. The good news for Marquette is there is still plenty of time to take another step forward with six games remaining against the four teams currently ahead of them in the standings. Offensively the team is more balanced than in Wojciechowski’s first couple of seasons with freshman Markus Howard and senior Katin Reinhardt joining the returning trio as double digit scorers add to that a couple of guards, freshman Sam Hauser and junior Andrew Rowsey average 9.2 and 9.3 respectively.
It has been baby steps for Marquette in the last couple of seasons and for the Golden Eagles to continue to move forward they will need to get a marquee win or two before March and make strides towards the top of the Big East.
Offense is definitely on the uptick this season and there are a number of guys having good years. There are some that may not be household names but are having seasons that make them appointment television when they play.
The American Athletic Conference is having a down year but that doesn’t mean the talent cupboard is bare. Tubby Smith’s Memphis Tigers have gotten off to a 2-2 start in conference and are 12-5 and are led by sophomore guard Dedric Lawson. The Memphis native averaged nearly 16 points and over nine rebounds per game in his first season making an immediate impact. This season Lawson has taken the reigns of the Tigers and run with them. This season Lawson ranks second in the country in double doubles with 13, just one behind Caleb Swanigan of Purdue. The 6-9 guard is averaging 20.8 points and 10.8 rebounds to go along with nearly four assists per contest. He had a career-high 35 points in a win over Iowa and has pulled down a season-high 15 boards twice in wins over UT-Rio Grande and South Carolina.
Speaking of South Carolina, another guy having a nice year is Clemson’s senior forward Jaron Blossomgame. It is early in ACC play but the Tigers have gotten off to a 1-3 start in a loaded field leaving them with a very uphill climb. A player like Blossomgame that has progressed from just four point his freshman year to over 18 in the last two deserves to see more than just one post-season game, an NIT game four years ago, in his college career. Jaron really took off last season cracking the 30 point plateau three times including 33 in a win over N.C. State. Unfortunately that team went just 17-14 and 10-8 in the ACC missing out on the post-season. This year outside of a loss to Georgia Tech on Jan. 12 the Tigers losses have all been by six points or less and with such a strong conference in Clemson’s remaining 14 games there are plenty of chances against teams that will be in the Tournament and those fighting to get in for them to build a strong enough resume to get Blossomgame to the big stage in March.
Staying in the state of South Carolina sophomore guard P.J. Dozier’s stats of 14.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.2 steals may not jump off the page but it is the work he did during the six-game suspension of Sindarius Thornwell that made Dozier an even more important piece to Coach Frank Martin’s puzzle. During that time the hometown Dozier averaged 19.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. After averaging 6.7 points last season the 6-6 Dozier has taken advantage of his bump in minutes and had a career-high 26 points in a two-point loss to Blossomgame and Clemson. Dozier’s emergence has the Gamecocks positioned to battle Florida for 2nd place in the SEC behind Kentucky both of whom South Carolina gets a shot at this week.
For the final two stars that we head to the west coast where the first stop is in Moraga, CA at the campus of St. Mary’s for junior center Jock Landale. The 6-11 Australian has burst onto the scene this season averaging nearly a double double for the 15-1 Gaels whose lone loss came at the hands of Texas-Arlington in early December. Besides that game St. Mary’s has been dominant, all but one of their victories has been by double digits and that is in large part to Landale’s 17.9 points and 9.7 rebounds. Landale started the season with 33 and nine in a win over Nevada, who may be the Mountain West’s best team, and never looked back. He has failed to score at least 13 points just once and that was in their win over Portland on Jan. 12 which the Gaels won by 41 points. Offensively Landale is one of the most efficient scorers in the country, his 64.2% from the field ranks 8th nationally. St. Mary’s is almost certainly an NCAA Tournament team and will once again battle Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference title so we should all get a good look at Landale deep into March.
Staying in the West Coast Conference the final under-the-radar star to take a look at is BYU’s Eric Mika. In 2014 Mika averaged 11.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as a freshman. This season he has returned from a two-year Mormon mission and blossomed into a big man that is putting up over 21 points and nine rebounds per game. In conference play has been averaging 22 and 10 and is coming off a career-high 31 points and 12 rebounds in a win over San Francisco. BYU might be the conference’s third best team but Mika is having a season worthy of attention.
These are just a handful of the players from across the college landscape that are having very good seasons but might not have the spotlight shined upon them. Perhaps in March, should they make it, they will have their one shining moment.
This summer at least one school tried unsuccessfully to lure Mick Cronin away from Cincinnati and it is a good thing for the Bearcats they were. The American might be down as a whole but Cincinnati is hardly down at 13-2 and 3-0 currently a half game behind SMU.
Cronin has been at Cincinnati for 11 years and has won over 200 games at the school but has advanced past the first weekend just once, in 2012 when the Bearcats lost in the Sweet Sixteen. Is it possible that this year’s Bearcats Cronin’s best since taking over in 2006? Despite the fact that the senior class of the Bearcats could win over 100 games they have tasted victory in the NCAA Tournament just once (a one point overtime win over Purdue two years ago). For seniors Kevin Johnson and Troy Caupain this is their best shot to make a March memory.
The Bearcats’ only losses were to Rhode Island and Butler and they have just one win over the top 50 in the RPI (Temple). With the conference having a downturn their schedule has just one more chance at a marquee win when they face Xavier on Jan. 26. The rest of the team’s numbers show Cincinnati to be a team that may not be getting the pub it deserves but come tournament time could be very dangerous.
Cronin’s squad is ranked 18th in the RPI and 17th in the KenPom rankings. The Bearcats rank in the top 100 nationally in nearly every offensive and defensive category. They average over 79 points per game but do so with just three players averaging double figures. Jacob Evans leads the team at 15.1 Kyle Washington chips in 13.8 and Caupin is the Bearcats’ stat stuffer with 10 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists. They are 8th in scoring margin at +17.9 because they only give up 61.4 per game. Cincinnati has always been a tough defending team. They are 2nd in field goal percentage defense holding opponents to 36% shooting and just 30% from beyond the arc. They also shoot the ball very well at 48%.
The bearcats are also very efficient at sharing and taking care of the ball. They dish out nearly 17 assists per game and have a +1.53 assist-to-turnover ratio all while committing the 17th fewest turnovers on the country so far this season. On the defensive end Caupain and company are just as stout. They are 10th in blocked shots per game (6.0), 43rd in rebounds per game (39.53) and 77th in total steals (177). If the team has one aspect of their game that could haunt them in March it would be their free throw shooting. They don’t get to the line very often and when they do they struggle, only shooting 64%, 301st out of 351 ranked teams.
Now that conference play is upon them and the conference struggling as a whole Cincinnati has to take advantage of games against their main challengers, mainly SMU, Houston and probably Memphis. They already have a double digit road win at Houston and host SMU tomorrow night. A dominant trip through the AAC schedule could prepare the Bearcats for a March the likes of which this senior class has yet to see.
It happens every March, that first or second round upset that has you pulling your hair out. Not only because you can’t believe it happened but because your co-worker picked it correctly because Terriers are cuter than Wildcats. It is only January but that time will soon be upon us so here is a look at three teams that could pull off those hair-pulling upsets provided they get invited to the dance.
The UNC-Wilmington Seahawks are currently 15-2 and 4-0 in the Colonial with an RPI of 24 and non-conference RPI of 17. Their two losses have come at the hands of a team you will hear more about later, Middle Tennessee State and Clemson. One problem for the Seahawks, a team that averages nearly 87 points per game is that those two games are the only games they have against the RPI top 50. Over the past three seasons the Seahawks have gone from winning just nine games to giving Duke all they could handle in an eight point loss in last year’s tournament. Now Coach Kevin Keatts has them poised to take another step forward. UNCW is no stranger to pulling upsets; back in 2002 Brett Blizzard led the Seahawks to a first round upset of fourth-seeded USC before falling to Indiana. This season’s incarnation is led by a quartet of double figure scorers (two senior guards and two sophomores) that account for 62.7 of the team’s 86.8 points per game. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder are the sophomores. C.J. Bryce averages 17.8 points and 5.3 rebounds and Devontae Cacok averages 9.6 rebounds and 13.8 points per contest. The Seahawks’ leadership comes from its senior backcourt of Chris Flemmings and Denzel Ingram who combine average 31.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.6 assists while only turning the ball over 4.7 times per game leading UNCW to the 25th best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country.
The next team should sound familiar to college basketball fans. The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders are looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament a year after stunning #2 seed Michigan State last season. The Blue Raiders are currently 13-3 and 3-0 in Conference USA with an RPI of 17 and a strength of schedule at 25. The peripheral numbers look good for MTSU and the results back them up with a 5-2 record against the RPI top 100 and wins over the aforementioned UNC Wilmington, Mississippi and Vanderbilt. Their losses came on the road at VCU and a pair of home losses to Tennessee State and Georgia State. While looking at the stats nothing really pops out about Kermit Davis’ squad. They don’t score a ton of points, only three players average double figures, no one else is above five points per game and they don’t really crash the glass, those same three players lead the team in rebounding. What the Blue Raiders do well is keep their opponents from scoring (65.4 points), they shoot the ball well at 48.2% and they don’t turn the ball over (only 10.3 per game) while forcing 14.5. That formula has worked out well and allowed the trio of seniors JaCorey Williams, Reggie Upshaw and junior Giddy Potts to lead the team. They account for 46.1 points and 19 rebounds per game and MTSU will go as far as these three will take them and they have already proven they are not afraid of the big stage.
The final team to take a look at doesn’t have eye-popping numbers either but they are 11-5 and 2-1 in the Sun Belt with an RPI of 62 and a 3-3 record against the RPI top 100. The Arkansas State Red Wolves have only been to the NCAA Tournament one time, back in 1999 but could be poised to go back for a number of reasons. They shoot the ball well at 48% (38.9% from beyond the arc), they defend the three well at 28.3% and they have something in common with MTSU and UNCW, senior leadership, more specifically senior guards. Deven Simms and Rashad Lindsey are juniors who average 22 points per game but it is Devin Carter and Donte Thomas’ 25.8 points, eight rebounds and 1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio that really makes Coach Grant McClasland’s team go. If the Red Wolves can survive what is always a wild Sun Belt and end up in a good match up they could pull off the unexpected.
The NCAA Tournament is always unpredictable but here are three teams to keep an eye on. If they end up in the bracket they could, and in the case of Middle Tennessee have already pulled off that unforeseen victory.
Balance, it is what every coach strives for. Whether it’s balanced scoring or balance on the offensive and defensive ends, balance is the ultimate goal. The most balanced team and one of the most balanced teams in the country is Matt Painter’s Purdue Boilermakers.
Purdue currently sits at 20th in the country and is 12-3. Their losses have been tight, a 3-point loss to Villanova, a 7-point loss at Louisville and an overtime loss to Minnesota on New Year’s Day. When looking for balance one stat to look at would be scoring margin; that is the points a team scores vs. the points they give up. The Boilermakers rank 9th in scoring margin at a +19.1. They score an average of 84.5 points and give up just 65.4. But it’s not just scoring margin, they are balanced in a number of stats like field goal percentage where they shoot it at a clip of 49% and hold teams to just 40% that puts them at 21st and 62nd in those categories. For a team that is so stingy defensively Purdue is also a very good rebounding team at 40.33 per game and 21st in the country in defensive rebounding at 29.2.
It is not just the team stats that are balanced. The scoring is balanced as well with four and nearly five players averaging double figures led by sophomore big man Caleb Swanigan and his 18.5 points but there are a total of seven players averaging at least seven points, that’s balance. When it comes to rebounding Swanigan is clearly the man with his 13, but it is the other guys that bang the glass that makes Purdue tough. All eight of the other players that average double figure minutes also average at least two rebounds per game. Painter’s squad is also balanced when it comes to sharing the ball, the 20.3 assists per game are 2nd best in the nation with five guys averaging at least two per game, led by Dakota Mathias’ 4.2.
The last thing that makes Purdue so balanced is its roster. With only two seniors on the roster and only transfer Spike Albrecht seeing any measurable time the Boilermakers are getting contributions from every class. As mentioned Swanigan is a sophomore and Mathias is a junior as are key contributors Isaac Haas (13.9 points, 5.2 rebounds) and Vince Edwards (12.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists). The freshmen class is led by Carsen Edwards who has averaged 10.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
Coach Painter seems as though he has achieved, or in the process of achieving the elusive balanced team. How far that balance will take them remains to be seen but it also makes them the Big Ten’s most dangerous team.