Blogs > The Full-Court Press

The Trentonian's Full-Court Press blog is back and improved. We'll keep you updated on everything you need to know about Rider and Princeton hoops as well as the college basketball landscape.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Rider on a roll

Don't look now, but Rider is on a big enough roll that if the Broncs win two of their next three games, they have to be considered the favorite to win the MAAC championship. 
Last night's 79-65 win at Marist was by far their most significant win of the season to date. It might not have that distinction for long, because a win Saturday at Siena (on ESPN2) would be even bigger. But last night's win was huge, and here's why: 
In addition to the fact that it put the Broncs in sole possession of first place in the MAAC, it was the first time this season that the Broncs beat a top-tier MAAC team on the road. 
They had been playing good basketball for several weeks and had won seven straight heading into last night's game. But of those seven wins, only one was against a team that has a winning record in the MAAC (Loyola) and that game was at home. Their only road wins had been against Iona, Manhattan and St. Peter's.
That isn't to say those games don't mean anything -- it's never easy to win on the road, so even Sunday's win against lowly St. Peter's was something to be content about. 
But before last night, it would be reasonable to say that the Broncs were good, but untested; that they had yet to make a firm statement that they were a dominant team. 
But Rider made that statement last night and made it emphatically, never trailing and leading for all but 87 seconds in the league's most hostile environment. 
Once again, the Broncs got a spark in perimeter offense from the bench; this time it was Kam Warner hitting three big 3s, including two in a critical stretch in the second half during which Marist threatened to get back into the game. 
And once again, Jason Thompson was dominant, scoring 20 points and adding nine rebounds, which made him the first player in school history to surpass the 1,000 rebound mark. 
Marist starting center Spongy Benjamin (whose real first name is Wilfred, in case you were wondering) was out with the flu, forcing Shae McNamara into the starting lineup and into the position of Marist player stuck with trying to guard Thompson. After the game, McNamara had one of the best lines I've heard all season, when he said "he's going to have an edge on anyone, especially me." 
A few more thoughts on last night's win: 
  • I talked to one person in the Marist athletic department who was extremely disappointed that the game drew a crowd of only 2,129 -- about 400 short of a sellout. But even though not every seat was full, I thought the atmosphere was still on a different level than every other venue in the MAAC. Rider did a great job taking the crowd out of the game early, and Tommy Dempsey said he thought because Rider played such good defense in the first half, the crowd never really became a factor. Nevertheless, there was an energy in the building for almost the whole game that you just don't get at many other MAAC gyms. And let me say again, the biggest difference might be the pep band. I think pep bands have a LOT to do with the atmosphere at college basketball games. I counted seven pep bands I've seen this year, including three in the Big East (Rutgers, Seton Hall and UConn). Marist's is, without question, the best one I've seen this year, and I think the crowd, particularly the student section, feeds off the energy the band provides. 
  • Once again, Justin Robinson played very well at point guard. He scored 11 points and, though he had only one assist, he committed only one turnover in 29 minutes. The point guard situation has been interesting from the beginning of the season. Robinson won the starting job in preseason practice over Matt Griffin, but after the first few MAAC games, it seemed that Griffin was on the verge of overtaking Robinson as the top point guard. Dempsey said even at that point that he was never considering replacing Robinson with Griffin in the starting lineup, but you couldn't help but wonder if in the future, Griffin would be on the court in critical stretches in the second half. He seemed to have a much better command of the offense, and to have earned the respect of his teammates to a greater extent than Robinson. (That isn't a dig at Robinson; it's just an observation that when Griffin talked, his teammates listened to him as if he were an on-court assistant coach, which doesn't always happen with freshmen point guards.) Now though, Robinson looks much more confident on offense than he did earlier in the year. He doesn't take a lot of shots, but the ones he takes are good ones; he lets the offense work itself out, and takes shots that work within the flow of the offense, instead of forcing shots just for the sake of shooting. Last night was a case in point even though he wasn't dead-on from the perimeter: he took open shots when he had them, making 5 of 11 for 11 points. 
  • Not a lot of attention is paid to the amount of minutes both Thompson brothers play. Rider plays a pretty up-tempo style, with a lot of half-court and sometimes full-court pressure, so it's not the kind of style that lends itself to guys playing 35 minutes a night. But last night, both played 36 minutes and played well for virtually all of them, combining for 34 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. 
And let's not forget about Rutgers, which pushed Seton Hall to overtime last night at the RAC before losing 84-71. Trentonian staff writer Eleazer Gorenstein was at the game, and here's a link to his story in today's paper. 
Would have been a nice win for the Scarlet Knights, who had won two straight against ranked teams coming in. It is, though, a very nice win for Seton Hall, which has won five straight in the Big East after an 0-3 start. If the Pirates continue to play well and finish in the top six or seven in the Big East, they're going to have a shot at an NCAA tournament bid -- something from which Rutgers, despite its obvious improvement, appears to be years away. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Red Fox Nation

Rider plays Marist tomorrow night at the McCann Center, with first place in the MAAC on the line. It'll be a major test for the Broncs -- one that begins a four-game stretch that will determine whether they're the team to beat in the MAAC or simply a team that fattened up on a relatively easy portion of its schedule. 
Following tomorrow's game, the Broncs, in succession, play at Siena and at home against Niagara and Siena. Realistically, 4-0 is probably too much to ask. That isn't to say it's impossible, but winning four straight against the best teams in your league, including two on the road, is hard,  no matter how good you are. 
With that said, I think if the Broncs go 3-1 -- which could very well leave them alone in first place -- they have to be thrilled with where they stand. And I think that's possible. I'm excited to see how they look against the Red Foxes, to whom they lost in excruciating fashion on Jan. 4 at Alumni Gym. 
But I'd be excited to go to the McCann Center even if both teams were mediocre and the game was relatively meaningless. 
Why?
Because I think it has hands-down the best atmosphere of any gym in the league. 
With all due respect to the Zoo Crew at Rider, or the Reitz Rowdies at Loyola, for my two cents, Marist has the most supportive fans in the league with room to spare. 
I measure that by answering two questions: 1) How good is the home court advantage? and 2) how well do the fans travel?  
And I think in both areas, Marist's fans -- particularly the students, which make the biggest difference -- are the best in the league. 
The McCann Center is packed almost every night and the building, though old and fairly uncomfortable, is the perfect size for MAAC basketball. The Red Foxes also have another ingredient that's critical when assessing atmosphere: a really good pep band. 
And in four and a half years covering the MAAC, I've never seen a display of fans at a visiting arena (although in this case it was a neutral site) than the showing Red Fox Nation had at the MAAC tournament last year in Bridgeport. 
Had the Red Foxes played Fairfield in the final -- a round neither team reached -- I'm not sure the Stags would have had a major advantage in crowd noise despite playing on their home court. 
I'm curious what you guys think about two things: 1) How do you expect Rider to do in the upcoming four games and 2) which team or teams do you think have the best home court advantage in the MAAC? 

Monday, January 28, 2008

Big Monday 30 pack

This week, I struggled more with the rankings than I have during any previous week. The teams at the very top were mostly impressive, but plenty of teams in the middle suffered bad losses. There are also more teams that jumped from unranked to fairly high spots this week. The most notable team in that category is Xavier, which beat Dayton and won at UMass, re-establishing itself as the premier team in the Atlantic 10.

There were some other teams that I wanted to penalize for poor performances, but didn't drop that much becasue the teams behind them in the rankings also faltered.
Another thing I struggled with is a point our pal Scott from Connecticut touched on in a comment last week: it's difficult to assess how good St. Mary's and Drake are.

I've taken this philosophy: if those teams get clipped in their conference tournaments, they're still both locks to make the NCAAs, and the records they've assembled in strong conferences warant a lot of respect in the rankings. That's why for the last two weeks, I've had both teams in higher spots than they've been in either the AP poll or the coaches' poll. The problem is this: unless these teams take their domination in their respective conferences a step further -- convincingly beating everyone on their schedule -- I don't think they deserve to continue to move up in the rankings.

For example, Drake's win last week at Creighton was nice, but if the Bulldogs were a top 10 team, they would have taken care of the Blue Jays more easily. With that in mind, I'm going to keep them in more or less the same place until they either lose or start distinguishing themselves more than they already have.

Quickly, we'll do a miniature one-question Q&A with Scott from Connecticut, who had an interesting question. The TCHB has gotten some comments and questions that are pretty far out there, but as always, we're happy to answer any legit questions.
Scott asked the following:

1) What has gotten into players like Hasheem Thabeet and Craig Austrie? Who do they think they are, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon? Pretty good week for UConn beating Marquette at home and winning two tough games on the road at Cincy and Indiana. Here's a question for Mr. Doody. You had previously mentioned a win at Georgetown would guarantee UConn gets into the NCAA tournament barring not losing every other conference game. Does a win at Indiana guarantee that same thing, because both teams were ranked pretty close to each other? Big home games for UConn this week against Louisville and Pitt. What else does this team have to do to get into the top 25, beat Memphis? Nah, they probably would have to beat Kansas also.

2) Good job by Fairfield this past week, but a win vs. Niagara would have been huge. They beat St. Peters and Canisius, teams they should have beat and lost to a tough Niagara team, where the final score didn't indicate how close the game actually was. The league is really competitive this year with 5 teams above 7 wins, while any given night one team could beat anyone else(as we saw Canisius beat Niagara). Fairfield will be in this thing til the end. Is Tyrone Lewis really only a sophomore? It is going to be scary to see how good he is by the time he is a senior. He specializes in being ridiculous when playing at the Arena at Harbor Yard, where he was the 07 MAAC Tournament MVP.

Both good questions about hoops in Connecticut, although I certainly never said that UConn would be in the NCAAs if the Huskies beat Georgetown and didn't lose "every other conference game."

I did say, however, that a road win over the Hoyas would stand out to the NCAA selection committee, and I certainly think the same is true about the Huskies' win at Indiana. When the tournament committee lines up potential teams, one of the things they always look at is quality wins. UConn now has two wins that can be put in that category: at Indiana and at home against Marquette. Especially given the wide-open nature of the Big East, I don't think any team in the conference other than Georgetown is a lock to be playing meaningful March basketball. But if the season ended now, UConn would definitely be in. Tonight's game is critical, though.

Good teams can occasionally pull off upsets, but very good teams have to be able to win at home on a consistent basis. If they lose tonight, they'll have lost two out of three at home -- not exactly the mark of a team that's destined for the Sweet 16. I've got a desk shift tonight, but I DVRd the game and am looking forward to watching it when I get home.

As for Fairfield, I disagree with Scott's assessment that the Stags did a "good job." If they're going to assert themselves that has a chance to be a factor in the MAAC, they need to win games like the one they let slip away against Niagara at home. I still can't figure out exaclty what has gone wrong with that team. I thought after watching them win 10 of their last 14 games last year that with all the additional factors -- an extra year for Ed Cooley to adapt to MAAC basketball; an extra year for the players to adapt to Cooley's system; the maturation that young players should have shown -- they would have a serious chance to win a MAAC title. Right now, it doesn't look like their chances are very good.

Our pal "All-time Yankee great Ruben Siera" had an interesting question about the possibility of Fairfield eventually changing its conference affiliation, and we'll get into that some time soon.
First though, this week's TCHB rankings.

1. Memphis (1)
2. Kansas (2)
3. Duke (4)
4. UCLA (5)
5. North Carolina (6)
6. Tennessee (3)
7. Michigan State (8)
8. Washington State (7)
9. Texas (20)
10. Georgetown (10)
11. Indiana (9)
12. Drake (13)
13. Butler (17)
14. St. Mary’s (12)
15. Xavier (30)
16. Wisconsin (11)
17. Florida (NR)
18. Arizona (NR)
19. Vanderbilt (14)
20. UConn (26)
21. West Virginia (23)
22. Kansas State (NR)
23. Baylor (NR)
24. Stanford (NR)
25. Mississippi State (NR)
26. Pitt (17)
27. Gonzaga (24)
28. Louisville (21)
29. Marquette (27)
30.Dayton (18)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

"It's a miracle"

J.R. Inman is often straddles the line between reality and an alternate universe filled with fantasy and hyperbole. That explains why on the eve of Rutgers' game last month against No. 1 North Carolina, he predicted All-American Tyler Hanbrough would not be able to guard him. The reality, of course, was that Inman was the one incapable of slowing down Hansbrough, and that Rutgers had no answers anyone dressed in Tar Heel blue, let alone the Heels' best player.
And Inman may have exaggerated the situation slightly when he branded yesterday's 77-64 upset of No. 17 Pittsburgh "a mircale."
Afterall, this was Rutgers-Pitt, not the Americans and the Soviets at Lake Placid.
Yet with that said, the Scarlet Knights' win -- their second in a row over a ranked opponent after starting the Big East season 0-6 and being branded the worst team in the conference by just about everyone -- was just about as stunning as it comes in college basketball.
In the span of a week, the Scarlet Knights have gone from hopeless losers to talented, tenacious underdogs capable of wreaking havoc on heavily favored Big East opponents.
At 2-6 in the conference, Rutgers is still nothing close to a lock -- perhaps not even a serious contender -- for the 12-team Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. But the Scarlet Knights can no longer be looked over; no longer laughed at as if they're nothing more than a mid-major punching bag playing in a power conference.
And anyone searching for a reason to be optimistic about a future centered around players like Corey Chanlder and Mike Coburn now can proclaim his or her optimism without being laughed at.
. . .
This blog post comes live from the Prudential Center, where Seton Hall leads Cincinnati 36-30 at halftime and Rider will take on St. Peter's at 2:30. The Broncs are looking for their seventh straight win and to remain in no worse than a first-place tie in the MAAC heading into Wednesday's game at Marist -- with whom the Broncs are tied, along with Siena.
In terms of talent and momentum, it's an obvious mismatch. The Broncs are playing at their highest level, while the Peacocks have lost six straight and 13 out of 14. But it's a league game on the road, which means anything can happen.
After all, didn't Pitt -- a powerhouse -- just lose to Rutgers -- a supposed doormat -- at home?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Questionable questions, followed by good basketball


Usually, the Big East coaches' teleconference is somewhat interesting, somewhat informative, but generally uneventful. Reporters take part in the call either to get opposing' coaches takes on players they're writing about or, in my case, to write a weekly conference notebook. 
Yesterday's call, however, was quite different. I wasn't keeping score, but the Chicago Tribune counted six times that pranksters got through on the line and asked vulgar and almost unthinkably immature questions to coaches. 
The Kid Chris program on WYSP-FM in Philadelphia is reportedly taking credit for making the calls. 
After a while, Big East associate commissioner John Paquette started personally screening the calls -- usually an operator lets callers through and Paquette simply moderates the teleconference -- and didn't let any callers through unless he knew the reporter who was next on the line.  A couple of times, Paquette rejected several questioners in a row, many of whom claimed to be from newspapers in far-away places like Kansas, where reporters seldom write about the Big East. 
My take on the pranksters? Two things: 1) I agree with UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who suggested the praksters "get a life." And 2) Are the people in Philadelphia so down on the Sixers, Flyers, Phillies and Eagles that this their idea of sports talk radio? (I know the program isn't sports-oriented, but the prank is)
Can't they at least celebrate the Philly Phanatic being recently named the greatest mascot of all time by Forbes magazine? The fact that St. Joe's just beat UMass for the second time? That Phillies' pitchers and catchers will be reporting to Clearwater in a few weeks? I mean, something has to make for better discussion than asking coaches if they have inappropriate sexual contact with their players, doesn't it? 
Anyway, in matters of actual basketball: Here's a link to the story from my Big East notes page, which is about Rutgers finally getting its first Big East win by upsetting Villanova. 
And I finished off my day by watching another pretty impressive win by Rider, which beat Manhattan 93-80 for its sixth straight win. Loyola beat Siena and Marist came back to edge out Iona, leaving the Broncs, Saints and Red Foxes in a three-way tie for first place in the MAAC. 
This conference race is shaping up to be really exciting, with up to five teams that right now appear to have a pretty realistic chance to win the conference (the three teams tied for first, along with Niagara and Loyola). 
In last night's game, Lamar Johnson caught fire off the bench, hitting a career-high seven 3-pointers to lift Rider. Tommy Dempsey said after the game that when the Broncs get good production from their bench -- which they did in a big way yesterday -- they're going to be pretty tough to beat. When you combine Johnson's spark off the bench with the play of the Thompson brothers, Harris Mansell, Mike Ringgold and the freshman point guard duo of Justin Robinson and Matt Griffin, that's a pretty formidable group. With that in mind, it's pretty hard not to agree with Dempsey on that one. 
Another interesting note about last night's game was that Detroit Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars and Phoenix Suns assistant general manager Vinny Del Negro (the pride of Springfield, Mass.) were in attendance, along with four other NBA scouts, to watch Jason Thompson. 
Good job by the desk guys getting all three college hoops stories from today's paper online.
And if you haven't already done so, be sure to enter the TCHB Super Bowl pick em contest by e-mailing your predicted winner and score to rutgersfootballblog@gmail.com. Anyone who wins will get a free t-shirt of his/her favorite college basketball team courtesy of the TCHB. 

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I don't believe what I just saw

I'm back from the RAC, watching College Gamenight on ESPN and thinking, in the words of the late Jack Buck: "I don't believe what I just saw!"
What I saw was Rutgers take it to Villanova, to the tune of an 80-68 win that, for the most part, wasn't as close as the final score indicates. 
Here's the game story in today's Trentonian, which, thanks to our pals on the copy desk, made its way onto the back page (which you can see along with the story). 
I wrote in a column yesterday that in order for the Knights to do so much as win a game in the Big East, an opponent was going to have to stumble into the RAC and play its worst game of the season. 
That may have happened, and I suspect the 12-plus minutes Villanova went without a field goal in the second half was the worst stretch of basketball the Wildcats have played this year. 
But having said that, I've got to credit the Scarlet Knights. Mike Coburn and Anthony Farmer were lethal from the perimeter on both sides of the ball, Corey Chandler played well off the bench and everyone else played well enough -- especially on defense -- to pull off the upset. 
When I was in Toronto earlier this month covering the International Bowl, a light-hearted topic of conversation among reporters was the predicted number of Big East wins the Knights would get. No one put the number at more than three, and some suggested it might be zero. My best guess was two, and for Rutgers' sake, I hope I'm wrong. 
If Rutgers plays the way it did last night, there's no doubt the Knights will win at least two or three more the rest of the way. Yet then again, this is the same team that lost by 25 to South Florida, so you never know. 
Rutgers wasn't the only team in the Big East that won an exciting game last night. UConn escaped with a thrilling win at Cincinnati, giving the Huskies their third road win after winning just two all of last year. 
Elsewhere in the Big East, Louisville bounced back from a loss to Seton Hall by crushing South Florida, and Pitt blew out St. John's at the Garden. 
The Big East coaches' teleconference is today at 11, so we'll have a Big East notebook in tomorrow's paper. 
And don't forget that tonight is a big night in the MAAC, including a rematch between Rider and Manhattan at the Broncs' Zoo. 
Rider has won five straight and is in good shape in the MAAC, sitting just a game behind first-place Siena in a second-place tie with Marist in the conference standings
And before we leave for the day: We're proud to announce the first-ever TCHB Super Bowl pick-em contest. It's simple: pick the winner and exact score of the big game in Glendale and win a t-shirt of your favorite college basketball team courtesy of the TCHB. 
To enter, send an e-mail to rutgersfootballblog@gmail.com with your name, favorite team and predicted score. 
Have a great Thursday. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Back at the RAC

I'm heading back up Route 1 tonight to watch Rutgers' latest attempt at getting its first Big East win when the Scarlet Knights host Villanova.
A look at the Big East standings is just about as depressing as it gets for the Knights. Not only are they the only team in the Big East without a win, but the team immediately ahead of them -- South Florida -- blew them out earlier in the year.
If you're a Rutgers fan, you've got to hope for continued improvement, which, as far as tonight's game is concerned, probably means keeping it close for the majority of the game. But boy, would an upset do wonders for the Knights' confidence as they head to Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Here's the gameday box from today's Trentonian:

WHO: No. 18 Villanova at Rutgers
WHEN/WHERE: Tonight, 7:00 p.m., Louis Brown Athletic Center
ON THE AIR: TV: ESPNU ; Rutgers radio: WOR (AM-710) and WCTC (AM-1450); Villanova radio: WPEN (AM-950)
RECORDS: Villanova is 13-3 overall, 3-2 in the Big East; Rutgers is 8-11, 0-6. SERIES: Villanova leads 23-7
LAST MEETING: Villanova won 74-51 last year.
SCOUTING VILLANOVA: The Wildcats have won two straight and three out of four. They won at Syracuse 81-71 last Saturday and 76-69 against DePaul last Wednesday. ... Sophomore shooting guard Scottie Reynolds, the Wildcats’ leading scorer at 17.5 points per game, averaged 26 points in three games last week and was named Big East player of the week. He scored 25 points and had six rebounds last Saturday at Syracuse. ... Junior power forward Dante Cunningham is averaging 10.8 points and a team-high 7.5 rebounds. ... Junior small forward Shane Clark is averaging 9.9 points and 5.6 rebounds. ... Redshirt freshman power forward Antonio Pena (7.1 points, 3.5 rebounds) and freshman guard Malcolm Grant (7.3 points) round out the starting five.
SCOUTING RUTGERS: The Scarlet Knights have lost six straight and eight out of nine. Their last attempt to gain their first win in the Big East was their best: a 75-73 loss last Friday at DePaul. Prior to that game, they had lost every Big East contest by at least 12 points and four by at least 15. ... The Knights shot a season-best 61.7 percent against DePaul — their second-highest percentage ever in a Big East game. ... Junior forward J.R. Inman is 16th in the Big East in scoring, averaging a team-best 16.5 points per game. ... Junior guard Anthony Farmer scored a game-high 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting against DePaul. ... Freshman guard Mike Coburn (6.5 points, 2.2 assists) junior small forward Jaron Griffin (8.3 points, 3.5 rebounds) and sophomore center Hamady N’Diaye (4.9 points, 5.8 rebounds) round out the starting five.
SIDELINES: Villanova is 4-2 when trailing at halftime, including its last two wins. ... Rutgers coach Fred Hill was the top assistant under Jay Wright at Villanova before coming to Rutgers. ... Villanova’s 51-point second half against Syracuse was its 16th half of the season in which it scored at least 40 points. ... Rutgers beat Villanova 73-60 on Jan. 23, 2000 — the last time the Knights played on Jan. 23. They are 3-5 all-time on that date. .... The Knights are 5-12 all-time against at home against the Wildcats.
. . .
While Wednesday is a big night in the Big East, Thursday has all the action in the MAAC, including Rider hosting Manhattan. Here's a link to the advance in today's Trentonian.

Monday, January 21, 2008

This week's 30 pack

For the first time this year, the TCHB and coaches' polls (and we assume the AP poll, when it comes out) have the same team at No. 1.
Memphis was an easy choice for us last week, but the Tigers are a much easier choice this week, after North Carolina stumbled to a one-point win (which we judge almost as harshly as a one-point loss) to Georgia Tech, then lost at home to Maryland.
Kansas keeps rolling along, and as the only team other than Memphis to remain undefeated, is an easy choice for No. 2.
With all the upsets that took place over the weekend, the rest of the top 30 has all sorts of teams moving either way up or way down in the rankings. Some teams, like Georgetown, might have moved down after losses, but stayed where they are because so many other teams also lost. Some teams, like Pitt, would have moved way up because of a marquee win, but didn't move as high because of a bad loss later in the week. Others still, like UConn, would have suffered a fatal blow because of an awful loss, only to bounce back with a big win to move up in the rankings.
Here they are, with last week's ranking in parentheses:
1. Memphis (1)
2. Kansas (3)
3. Tennessee (6)
4. Duke (8)
5. UCLA (4)
6. North Carolina (2)
7. Washington State (7)
8. Michigan State (5)
9. Indiana (11)
10. Georgetown (9)
11. Wisconsin (19)
12. St. Mary's (12)
13. Drake (16)
14. Vanderbilt (23)
15. Butler (17)
16. Texas A&M (11)
17. Pitt (18)
18. Dayton (10)
19. Mississippi (15)
20. Texas (21)
21. Louisville (25)
22. UMass (30)
23. West Virginia (24)
24. Gonzaga (NR)
25. Villanova (28)
26. UConn (29)
27. Marquette (14)
28. Clemson (26)
29. Rhode Island (22)
30. Xavier (20)
Dropped out: Notre Dame (from 27th)



Sunday, January 20, 2008

Upsets abundant

Finally, it's time to relax. 
The weekend is over and there's no more speculating about which teams will get bitten by the upset bug. The Patriots are still standing while the Packers are not; Memphis is still standing; North Carolina wishes it could say the same. In the Big East, UConn pulled off an upset -- which the TCHB witnessed at Gampel Pavilion, while Rutgers couldn't quite pull one out at DePaul. The notoriously vile upset bug even spread to the MAAC, where normally pathetic Canisius stunned cross-town rival Niagara. Rider escaped with a narrow win despite a furious comeback by sharp-shooting Manhattan. We'll take a look at what ramifications all the upsets had tomorrow in the TCHB's weekly top 30. 
Now, though, it's time to start praying that the upset bug spares the Patriots, and hence, spares tri-state area Pats fans the non-stop harassment we'd be sure to endure if the high-flyin G-Men emerge victorious two weeks from today in Glendale. 

Friday, January 18, 2008

Party like its 1996


John Calipari is on top of the college basketball world, UMass and Temple both had huge wins this week, a candidate named Clinton is out on the campaign trail, and every day when you wake up and check the scores in the paper (or online), you're not crazy if the first question on your mind is "What happened last night in the Atlantic 10?" 
All of which begs the question: "um, which decade is it?"
If the season ended today, the A-10 -- after fading into irrelevance before the turn of the millennium and staying there for years -- would have four teams in the NCAA tournament. 
Twice this year has an A-10 team knocked off a BCS conference heavyweight (Xavier over Indiana and Dayton -- by 25 -- over Pitt). Before losing Wednesday night at home to UMass, Dayton had risen to No. 4 in the RPI. And A-10 teams have been successful enough in nonconference play that it isn't unreasonable to think that UMass' win over Dayton (and St. Joe's' win at UMass, for that matter) was more a sign of the strength of the victorious underdog than of the weakness of the fallen favorite. 
Granted, the Flyers' loss will knock them down in the RPI and in the polls.
 But remember what happened the last two times the A-10 had a team that high in the rankings? 
 In 2005-06, George Washington was ranked as high as fourth in the country, only to get a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament and lose in the second round to Duke.
Two years before that, St. Joe's went into the A-10 tourney undefeated and got a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, but the rest of the league was so bad that no one gave the Hawks any respect. And when Jameer Nelson and Co. fell short of the Final Four, skeptics snickered at what they viewed as the falsity of St. Joe's' claim to national supremacy. 
So I ask you, A-10 junkies -- all of you out there from Cincinnati to South Kingston -- wouldn't you rather have an exciting league with quality teams in the middle of the pack than one paper tiger at the top that isn't really that good? 
If that's what you want, it's looking more and more like that's what you're getting. 
Now, just one question: who let St. Louis into the league and how is it possible that the Billikens scored 20 points in a regular reason game earlier this year? 

. . . . 
And a quick plug: the TCHB is diving into the world of Mercer County High School basketball. We'll be at Rider tonight for Notre Dame and Hopewell. Yesterday, it was Nottingham taking down Pennington on the road. Here's the game story in today's Trentonian. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Column: One foot in front of the other, in hopes of finding success


 LAWRENCEVILLE – If the journey to success is a marathon, the Rider women’s basketball team is not that a slick, speedy pro from Kenya.

The Broncs are not a college cross-country star from California.

In this race, they are not fit, fast or even fully functional.

Rider is more like a clumsy teenager who got a ride to the race from her big brother, wears braces and sometimes trips over her own feet.

But if they keep moving forward, first-year coach Lynn Milligan knows the Broncs will get to the finish line.

She knows they’ll get there, knows the route to take, and knows that a few skinned knees won’t diminish the fulfillment they’ll feel when they finally get there.

She also knows that although they’re not close to finishing the race, they’ve made progress. The Broncs (5-11, 0-5 MAAC), who play Friday at Fairfield, have already won as many games this season than they did in the previous two years combined under former coach Tori Harrison.

“From where we started to where we are now,” Milligan said, “it’s astronomical leaps. But where we want to be, it’s going to take astronomical leaps to get there.”

It would have taken an astronomical leap for the Broncs to overcome a 17-point second-half deficit last Sunday against Loyola. They attempted to make the leap. They fell down before they got to their destination, but they almost made it, cutting the deficit to three with 36 seconds remaining before the Greyhounds hit their free throws, took care of their business and got the heck out of Alumni Gym, averting the embarrassment that would have come from becoming the first MAAC team – and only the second in the last two years – to lose to the Broncs.

It was a game that the Broncs could have had.

There are not supposed to be moral victories in college basketball. A win is a win, a loss is a loss, and a missed opportunity is a missed opportunity. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

But teams are never supposed to be as bad as Rider was last year, so for the Broncs, its OK to bend the rules. It’s even OK to take a glass-half-full approach to this stat: the Broncs’ 10 single-digit losses are the most in the country.

You need not be an astro-physicist to figure out that not every team would be content to be anywhere on that list, let alone at the top of it. UConn does not lead the country in single-digit losses because the top-ranked Huskies have no losses.

But when you’re coming off two seasons in which you won a combined five games, you find yourself smiling upon that stat and even, in Rider’s case, showing it off for everyone to see it. Stats that reflect poorly on teams are rarely included in the game notes prepared for the media, but there it is in the Broncs’ notes, reminding reporters that there have been many losses, but no blowout losses.

When you’re trying to build a program from the ground up, you find yourself looking at the positives. You find yourself, as Milligan was following the comeback that wasn’t quite completed, thinking that with an adjusted mindset, those close losses could turn into close wins.

“We talk about fear a lot with this team,” Milligan said. “And when you’re not used to winning, sometimes you’re afraid to make mistakes. Sometimes you get afraid of failure. You’re a little bit afraid of success and what that means.

 “So those are some of the things we need to work out. I think that’s going to help us as we get more comfortable with who we are and what we’re capable of doing.”

The Broncs cannot see the finish line. They cannot even see the halfway point.

But they’re moving forward. A win at Fairfield (11-5, 1-4) would be another astronomical leap.

But if they don’t win, maybe they’ll add to their total of single digit losses.

Maybe they’ll put together a complete game.

Maybe they won’t dig themselves into an 8-0 hole, or fall behind by 17 in the second half.

Maybe they’ll play well enough to say they’ve taken another small step.

And maybe if they keep doing that, they’ll eventually get to the finish line.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A few thoughts, then a few beers


I'm off to the City in a few minutes to begin the countdown to pitchers and catchers by having a couple beers at the Hairy Monk, the home of the Sox in the City. First, though, a few points about last night: 
  • Novar Gadson, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard from Philadelphia, committed to Rider Sunday, becoming the third member of the Broncs' recruiting class. He told me Central Connecticut and Morehead State, which also were prepared to offer him scholarships, backed off because of concerns about his grades. But he said the biggest red flag was one he hopes to erase from his transcript: a 'D' he got last year in Algebra II. He's retaking the class in Saturday School, hoping to turn it into an A. He's also closing in on the John Bartram High career scoring record held by Joe "Jelleybean" Bryant. You may have heard of his son, Kobe. 
  • I didn't get a chance to watch all of Big Monday, but here are a few thoughts: 1) I'm not surprised Pitt beat Georgetown. I really thought Georgetown, though good, was overrated at fifth in the AP poll, and that's why I had the Hoyas ninth in my rankings. Losing at Pitt isn't an impeachable offense, but I think it shows that, at least right now, the Hoyas are not an elite team. 2) For the most part, I like ESPN. For all its well-documented faults, just about everyone who works there -- from the broadcasters to the anchors to the reporters -- are better than the folks at any other network. But did we need to waste three minutes hearing what Neil Everett and Scott Van Pelt thought about Kansas and how much they enjoy going to Fogg Allen Fieldhouse? Please, ESPN: Chill out on the pointless self-promotion (we're going to watch Sportscenter anyway) and let the play-by-play crew do its job! and 3) I still think St. Mary's is the best team in the WCC, but boy, did Gonzaga look impressive in the beating it handed to Pepperdine. 
  • Thanks to reader Scott Apuzzo for reminding us how underrated the Missouri Valley Conference is. That's exactly why I have Drake, which still hasn't cracked the top 25 in either major poll, at No. 16 in my rankings. 
That's all I've got for today. The more comments, the better. 

Monday, January 14, 2008

This week's 30 pack


In this week's 30-pack of the TCHB (Trentonian college hoops blog) top teams, Memphis, still dominant and unbeaten, retains the top spot. But North Carolina, which clobbered N.C. State last week and is starting to look more unbeatable, jumps Kansas into the No. 2 spot. The Heels are also No. 1 in the RPI, surpassing Memphis, and that works in their favor. None of this is a slap in the face to Kansas; the Jayhawks are still in the top three, and I consider all three on a fairly even playing field. I'm also looking forward to watching Kansas tonight on ESPN, in what looks like a heck of a slate for Big Monday (Georgetown and Pitt kick it off at 7, before Kansas and Oklahoma.)
There are several things on which the TCHB disagrees with the consensus from the voters in the AP poll, which has Georgetown up two spots to No. 5 after narrowly beating UConn on the strength of a Roy Hibbert -- that's right, Roy Hibbert! -- 3 in the final seconds. The TCHB watches a lot of UConn games and, though impressed with the improvement the Huskies have shown, doesn't think beating them on a miracle shot at home is cause to be elevated in the rankings. There are a handful of other major differences as well, such as our inclusion of Drake -- one of the top three our four midmajors in the country -- in the top 20.
There are also a couple of other changes from last week in the top 10: one is that we had to knock down Washington State a couple slots for losing to UCLA and not taking the game down to the wire. We know it was on the road, but if the Cougars were only one spot worse than the Bruins, we think this one might have been a dogfight, which it wasn't. The other is that we're so impressed with the play of Dayton -- No. 4 today in the RPI -- that we moved the Flyers into the top 10, and booted Indiana, which should have had an easier time disposing of a mediocre Illinois team at home. 
Without further adieu, here's this week's TCHB 30, with last week's ranking in parentheses: 

1. Memphis (1)
2. North Carolina (3)
3. Kansas (2)
4. UCLA (4)
5. Michigan State (6) 
6. Tennessee (7)
7. Washington State (5) 
8. Duke (8)
9. Georgetown (9)
10. Dayton (12)
11. Indiana (10)
12. St. Mary's (14)
13. Texas A&M (11) 
14. Marquette  (20)
15. Mississippi (18) 
16. Drake (NR) 
17. Butler (21)  
18. Pitt (25) 
19. Wisconsin (23)
20. Xavier  (28)
21. Texas (15) 
22. Rhode Island (16)
23. Vanderbilt (13) 
24. West Virginia (22) 
25. Louisville (NR)
26. Clemson (19) 
27. Notre Dame (17) 
28. Villanova ( 27) 
29. UConn (NR) 
30. UMass (24) 
Dropped out: Arizona (from 26th); Stanford (from 29th); Syracuse (from 3oth). 
And a few other notes before we turn our attention to Big Monday: 
The TCHB went 2-for-3 in predicting the outcomes of the three big games we spotlighted last week in our Big East notebook. We were wrong about Marquette-Notre Dame. Kudos to Tom Crean and Co. for cooling down the Fightin' Irish and making a statement that they're still a contender for the Big East crown despite their recent loss to West Virginia. We can't take a lot of credit for telling you that Georgetown and West Virginia would both win, but we were pretty close on the margins of victory: We had Georgetown beating UConn by two; the Hoyas won by three. And we had West Virginia going to the Dome and winning by 13. We thought that was a fairly bold statement about the Mountaineers' supremacy over the Orange, and even took a little heat from the two Syracuse grads on the sports copy desk at the Trentonian. But Bob Huggins and Co. responded with force, winning by 20 and making us look pretty good. That win also booted the Orange from our top 30, and we don't expect Jim Boeheim's crew to be back any time soon. 
Secondly, we had double duty yesterday at the Broncs' Zoo, covering the Rider women and men. Those links will bring you to the game stories in today's Trentonian. 
Lastly, a response to the Fairfield fan who wanted the original Celtics Big Three to return to the ranks of college hoops and suit up for the Stags: nice try, but even if playing in the NBA didn't make players ineligible in college hoops, you picked three players who would still be OUT of NCAA eligibility. If you want to pick a few Celtics, you've got three members of the Green's starting five who would have a combined nine years of eligibility: four each for Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins and one from Ray Allen. 
That's all for today. We'll check in tomorrow with some thoughts on the rest of the week ahead in college hoops. 





Saturday, January 12, 2008

A crowded pack in the MAAC


It wasn't pretty, but Rider went into the House of Horrors (aka the Hynes Athletic Center at Iona) and got a win -- something the Broncs couldn't do against an 0-22 Iona team last year. 
Harris Mansell woke up from an early shooting slump to score a game-high 18 points for the Broncs, who host Loyola tomorrow afternoon at the Broncs' Zoo. 
Here's a link to the game story in today's Trentonian. There's also a notebook in the print edition. 
Tomorrow's game is a must-win for Rider. As Tommy Dempsey put it last week, the Broncs slipped back a little from the top teams in the MAAC when they lost at home last week to Marist. If they want to get back into the mix, they need to be virtually unbeatable at home, beat teams like Iona on the road, and try to steal a road win at places like Marist, Siena and Loyola. 
Marist, which beat St. Peter's last night, is now 4-1 in the league. Fairfield, pronounced dead by many after an atrocious first month of the season, is alive and kicking at 3-2, having won at Siena and Loyola. 
And after Siena won last night at Niagara, six out of the 10 teams in the conference are within a game of first place
Tomorrow is a good opportunity for the Broncs to win a game against a top-tier MAAC team -- something they haven't yet done, despite being 3-2 in the league. 
I'm curious to know: which teams do you think are legit in the MAAC and which teams will fade by the end of January? 


Friday, January 11, 2008

Big East notebook: Passing the baton


A few things to touch on first:
  • I'll get back to my states rankings tomorrow; I'm about to head up to New Rochelle, N.Y. for the Rider-Iona game.
  •  Be sure to check out the game story in tomorrow's Trentonian.

And now, since my Big East notebook didn't make it to the main sports page at trentonian.com, here it is:

Passing the baton 

A year after Jim Calhoun lost five players to the NBA draft, he got one player back.

After Calhoun watched his team, as he put it, “drop the baton” in the passing on of UConn tradition last year, that player may have been the one he needed most.

On June 28, a year after five UConn players were selected in the first round of the NBA draft, decimating Calhoun’s team and leaving him with a cast of talented but unproven freshmen and sophomores, the Boston Celtics traded the rights to the No. 5 pick in the draft, along with guard Delonte West and forward Wally Szczerbiak, for a second-round pick and Ray Allen, the most recognizable face from UConn’s great teams of the past two decades.

Calhoun explained yesterday on the Big East coaches’ teleconference that in the pantheon of UConn players over the past 15 years, there has always been someone to pass along the tradition from one generation to the next.

When Donyell Marshall left after his junior year in 1994, he passed the baton to Allen. When Allen left two years later, there was Ricky Moore, an understudy to Allen who helped pass the baton the next year to Richard Hamilton.

On the baton went, from Hamilton to Albert Mouring, to Caron Butler, to Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor, to Hilton Armstrong and Josh Boone, to … no one.

Forward Jeff Adrien, seldom-used as a freshman, was the only link from the Huskies’ dominant 2005-06 team to last year’s assemble of young talent. Point guard A.J. Price would have been a suitable link, but Price sat out his freshman year after nearly dying from a brain hemorrhage, then was suspended for the entire 2005-06 season after being found guilty of attempting to sell stolen laptops along with point guard Marcus Williams, who is now with the Nets.

So Price, who would have been a junior last year had he played during his first two years as a student, was just a rookie last year. Adrien, though talented, wasn’t ready for the baton.

Which is where Allen comes in.

Admired and idolized in his three years in Storrs (from 1993-96), Allen spent the first 11 years of his pro career in Milwaukee and Seattle.

But upon his arrival in Boston — which, along with the addition of Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves, helped the Celtics to an NBA-best 29-4 record going into last night’s games — Allen became a big-brother figure to many current Huskies.

He worked out at Gampel Pavilion over the summer and on multiple occasions has lent his advice to players such as sophomore shooting guard Jerome Dyson — the Huskies’ closest thing to an emerging superstar.

“Having him come to Boston was a dream come true,” Calhoun said. “I think he’s really helped guys in the program. He’s worked a lot with Jerome about being a scorer. There are very few young guys I’ve ever coached who are better people than Ray Allen. He loves this school and he’s really given a great deal back and now that we have the opportunity to not have him 3,000 miles away, I think we’re benefiting right now.”

The Huskies have worked out with Allen and Donny Marshall, an undersized power forward who played alongside Allen in the mid-90s and is now a Celtics postgame analyst on Comcast SportsNet in New England.

That, Calhoun said, has helped establish connections to the past.“(Marshall) will get into a scrimmage, he loves to keep himself in shape, and it’s great to have him around,” Calhoun said.

This team, though, is still in the early stages of writing its own chapter in UConn history.After suffering through the worst season in 20 years in Storrs last year and failing to qualify for any kind of postseason play, there have been signs of improvement this year but no signature win.

UConn (11-3, 2-1 Big East) travels to Washington, D.C. tomorrow in search of that win when it takes on No. 7 Georgetown at the Verizon Center (2 p.m., ESPN).

While they’re in Washington, the Huskies will be joined for dinner by two guests: Butler, now a star forward for the Washington Wizards, and Allen, who will be in town with the Celtics to play the Wizards tomorrow night.

Close, but not quite there

Bobby Gonzalez says he knows the wins will start coming.

The second-year Seton Hall coach has seen too many good things from the Pirates (10-5, 0-2) this year not to have confidence that his team is better than the 13th-place finish that was predicted by the conference’s coaches in their preseason poll. In two Big East games, the Pirates out-played UConn in the first half on Jan. 3 at the Prudential Center in Newark.

And on Tuesday night, the Pirates just missed out on a statement victory at Marquette, failing to hold on to a second-half lead in a 61-56 loss at the Bradley Center.“I think we’re making progress,” Gonzalez said. “I think we’re getting better and I think we’re a team that’s going to play better basketball later in the season.”

Can-do Kentrell

The coaches who voted South Florida last in their preseason poll may have overlooked the impact of Bulls sophomore power forward Kentrell Gransberry.Gransberry has been a force in the low post, averaging 15.9 points and 11.5 rebounds as the Bulls have jumped to a 10-6 start (1-2 in the Big East).

He shined last week when USF trounced Rutgers — picked 15h in the 16-team conference, one spot ahead of USF.“Kentrell was a known commodity coming in,” said first-year Bulls coach Stan Heath. “He was a guy that had already posted double-figure points and double-figure rebounds and people already knew that that was the guy they had to point the finger at.”

THREE GAMES THAT MATTER THE MOST


UConn (11-3, 2-1 Big East) at No. 7 Georgetown(12-1, 2-0); Tomorrow, 2 p.m., ESPN

We know UConn is better than it was a year ago, but how much better? The Huskies have looked good in Big East wins over Seton Hall and St. John’s, but don’t have a signature win. The Hoyas, who didn’t look dominant in a 58-46 win last week at Rutgers, could prove their Big East supremacy with a convincing win.

Prediction: Georgetown 70, UConn 68


Notre Dame (12-2, 2-0) at No. 15 Marquette (12-2, 2-1); Tomorrow, 2 p.m.

Two teams that might be going in different directions. The Golden Eagles looked like the team to beat in the Big East before losing to West Virginia and barely beating Seton Hall. The Fighting Irish look like surprise contenders for the conference title and could cement that status with a win on the road.

Prediction: Notre Dame 77, Marquette 72


West Virginia (11-4, 1-2) at Syracuse (12-4, 2-1); Sunday, 2:30 p.m., ESPNU

West Virginia was surging coming into last night’s game at Louisville, having beaten Marquette and jumped off to better-than-expected start under Bob Huggins. Syracuse has been good in some games (wins over Virginia and Washington) and not-so-good in others (losses to UMass and Cincinnati). Whichever team wins will put another item on its NCAA tournament resume.

Prediction: West Virginia 83, Syracuse 70


NOTABLE
Kenpom.com, a web site that ranks teams based on how good they are right now (as opposed to most sets of rankings, which evaluate teams based on their bodies of work), put West Virginia — rated fourth in the country — as the toughest team to beat heading into yesterday’s games. The other Big East teams in the Kenpom ratings: Marquette (eighth); Georgetown (11th); Notre Dame (15th); Pittsburgh (24th); Louisville (30th); UConn (31st); Syracuse (40th); Providence (67th); South Florida (69th); Villanova (71st); St. John’s (101st); Seton Hall (107th); DePaul (118th); Cincinnati (120th); and Rutgers (211th).


QUOTABLE
“You’ve got to come in and understand that every team that you’re going to face in this league wants the same thing you want and is capable of getting it. We’ve seen that in the games and we’re trying to improve.”— Marquette coach Tom Crean, talking about the mindset of his team, which won its first two Big East games before being upset by West Virginia.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

50 Nifty United States


When you're a big enough nerd to be obsessed with both college basketball and politics, the following is an example of a thought that crosses your mind as you're walking down a street in Hoboken, pondering the significance of the state of New Hampshire: 
The Granite State is one of the most important states in presidential politics but one of the least important in college basketball. 
Anyone who turned on a TV last night and wasn't exclusively glued to the Big East doubleheader on SNY or Indiana-Michigan on ESPN (I flipped to CNN in commercials of the Big East games, while keeping an eye on the Hoosiers and Wolverines) or picked up a newspaper this morning knows that New Hampshire is a pretty important place if you want to be president. 
That got me thinking: North Carolina and California are both college hoops hotbeds but relatively unimportant in presidential elections (at least in general elections) because they aren't swing states. 
Florida and Ohio are unique in that they're extremely relevant in both: teams from those states squared off in last year's national championship game. And if you win both in a general election, you're virtually guaranteed to win the presidency. 
We know which states are the most important in politics. But which states matter the most in college hoops? 
At some point between now and the end of the season, I'm going to come up with a list of all 50 states, ranked in order of the quality of college hoops and the passion the fans there have for it. 
For now though, my top five; Ray Rice's press conference is this afternoon at Rutgers, so the bottom five will have to wait until tomorrow. But with all due respect to all those New Hampshire residents who flooded the polls yesterday to propel John McCain and Hillary Clinton to victory, your state might make that list. 

1. North Carolina -- Tobacco Road makes it more prominent in college hoops than Iowa or New Hampshire are in politics. In the last 25 years, it has produced the national champion seven times: three for Duke, three for North Carolina and one for NC State. 
2. Kentucky -- home to the winningest program in college basketball history, arguably the most college-hoops-obsessed fans in the country, and two schools at which Rick Pitino has coached. 
3. Indiana -- the Hoosiers are the top ticket in town, the Joyce Center rocks for every Norte Dame home game, Butler is a midmajor power, Purdue is always competitive, and even Indiana State, with a lanky forward named Larry Bird leading the way, has appeared in a national championship game. 
4. Pennsylvania -- The Keystone state often gets overlooked in conversations like this, but consider everything it has to offer: two Big East teams with legitimate hopes to win the conference and go deep into the NCAAs every year (Vilanova and Pitt); a decent enough Big Ten program (Penn State); and most importantly, the college hoops scene in Philadelphia, which includes everything from a team that was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament three years ago (St. Joseph's) to a tradition-filled Ivy League program (Penn) and an up-and-coming midmajor program (Drexel) that happens to be coached by Bruiser Flint, a Philly native who played at St. Joe's. 
5. Connecticut -- It edges out Tennessee, which has two teams in the top 10 right now, for two reasons: 1) UConn is the only school to produce a men's and women's champion in the same year (2004) and 2) it joins the top three states on this list in which college basketball is more important to the fan base than college football. The down side is this: the UConn men have fallen -- at least temporarily -- off their birch atop the college hoops universe; and with all due respect to my alma mater, Fairfield -- which beat Siena last night to improve to 3-1 in the MAAC -- and to 2007 NCAA tournament team Central Connecticut State -- none of the six midmajor schools are on the national midmajor map. 
The toughest omission from this list was California, home to the team with the most championships (UCLA) and three other Pac 10 teams, all of whom have been very good at one time or another. The reason I had to leave it off is that the number of quality teams and the titles they have won isn't that big in relation to the enormous size and population of the state. 

Monday, January 7, 2008

30 pack


The AP and coaches' polls are both out on Mondays, so I figure Monday is as good a day as any to give you my rankings. Since 25 is an arbitrary number with no real significance, I figure it'll be a good feature to extend the rankings to 30 teams. If a team is the 27th-best team in the country, I don't see why it shouldn't get just about as much recognition as the 25h best team. 

So with no further adieu, here they are: 

1. Memphis
2. Kansas 
3. North Carolina 
4. UCLA 
5. Washington State 
6. Michigan State 
7. Tennessee
8. Duke
9. Georgetown
10. Indiana 
11. Texas A&M 
12. Dayton
13. Vanderbilt 
14. St. Mary's 
15. Texas
16. Rhode Island
17. Notre Dame
18. Mississippi 
19. Clemson
20. Marquette
21. Butler
22. West Virginia 
23. Wisconsin
24. UMass
25. Pittsburgh 
26. Arizona
27. Villanova 
28. Xavier
29. Stanford 
30. Syracuse 

Ups and downs in the Big East, part II

Since our look at the top half of the Big East preseason coaches' poll -- and since I drove eight hours from Toronto to New Jersey, then witnessed Rider's 102-51 demolition of Canisius today at the Broncs' Zoo -- a lot has happened to shake things up.

Tonight, Bob Huggins pulled a trick out of John Belein's playbook and shut down Marquette using the 1-3-1 zone that become familiar in Morgantown, Villanova bounced back from its loss to DePaul with a big win over Pitt (or is it more a bad loss for Pitt?) and Notre Dame hung on to continue its home-court dominance and beat UConn.

The West Virginia upset throws off our Big East stock market a bit, but we'll go ahead with the bottom eight teams from the coaches' poll anyway.

I'm not sure what the plan is for tomorrow, but I'll think of something fun and post it at some point in the afternoon.

Below is the last part of our three-part MAAC/Big East stock market watch. Comments, questions and suggestions are all welcome with open arms.

9. Notre Dame ( 12-2, 2-0) -- stock has gone up.

Way up. As far up as any team in the conference. In fact, if the season ended right now -- a preposterous scenario, I know -- Mike Brey would be a serious contender for Big East coach of the year. The Irish have two quality Big East wins, albeit they've both come at home, and have a pretty good nonconference resume complete with a win over Kansas State. ND's surge has earned it the No. 17 spot in kenpom.com's national ratings.

10. West Virginia (11-3, 1-1) -- stock has gone up.

Like him or loathe him, Bob Huggins wins wherever he goes. Now that list of teams includes his alma matter, which stunned Marquette to improve to 11-3 and get back to .500 in the Big East. The Mountaineers don't have any marquee wins, but they deserve respect for taking Tennessee down to the wire. WVU is a serious contender for an NCAA bid. Let's just hope Michigan doesn't hire Huggins away to be an assistant to John Belein.

11. DePaul (6-7, 2-0) -- stock has stayed the same.

The upset win over Nova is nice, and give the Blue Demons credit for beating a decent Providence team to improve to 2-0 in the conference. And the nonconference schedule -- with games against Kansas, Clemson, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss -- was brutal. Even a close loss to Chreighton isn't bad. But to garner consideration for an NCAA bid, they'll need to pull at least a couple more upsets in the Big East. They haven't done anything yet to convince me they're capable of doing that.

12. Cincinnati (6-8, 1-1) -- stock has stayed the same.

That win over Louisville doesn't look that impressive in light of the Cardinals' struggles, and the 14-point loss to St. John's isn't the kind of game a top-tier Big East team would play. There's reason to believe Mike Cronin has this thing going in the right direction, but it's going to take awhile.

13. Seton Hall (10-4, 0-1) -- stock has gone up.

The Pirates are by no means an NCAA tournament contender, but they're not cellar dwellers either. Bobby Gonzalez's team has two fairly good wins (Virginia and James Madison) and kept it close against a good N.C. State team. An NIT bid -- which looks right now like a long-shot but not a fantasy -- would be a good step forward.

14. St. John's (7-6, 1-1) -- stock has stayed the same.

That's bad news for Norm Roberts, whose time is running out to turn things around. Those of us who follow the MAAC closely know that losing to Niagara is not an impeachable offense, nor is being in a dogfight with Marist. At least if you're considered a bottom-tier Big East team. If Georgetown lost to Niagara it'd be a different story. The Johnnies beat Cincinnati, gave Syracuse a good game in the Dome and are rated 99th by kenpom.com, but none of that means they deserve to be considered a middle-of-the-pack team.

15. Rutgers (8-7, 0-2) -- stock has gone down.

If anyone out there has an explanation for why the Scarlet Knights aren't the worst team in the Big East, I'm dying to hear it. The Knights have played a weak enough schedule that a team that was bad but not atrocious would have at least 10 wins playing against these teams. This team, though, is a mess. It went 1-2 against the MAAC, losing to lowly St. Peter's, and two of its wins came against teams that are rated the worst team in the country (NJIT, which RU beat by only 10) and second worst team (North Carolina Central) in the country by kenpom.com.

16. South Florida (10-5, 1-1) -- stock has gone up.

If nothing more, the Bulls are much better than Rutgers, and they proved it by blowing out the Knights last week in Tampa. Sure, the schedule isn't great, but Rutgers has proven that even if you play a weak schedule, there's no guaranteeing winning two thirds of your games. And any team that has Kentrell Gransberry (15.1 points, 11.6 rebounds per game) is dangerous.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Ups and downs in the Big East

I didn't make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but I did finish all my football stuff. So here, as promised, is a look at the ups and downs so far of teams in the Big East. I'm interested to hear what readers think, so bring on the comments! 

As I did yesterday with the MAAC, below is a list of Big East teams, in order of their place in the preseason conference coaches' poll. Next to their record is where each team's stock has gone. Since the Big East is substantially bigger than the MAAC (16 teams instead of 10), we'll do the top half of the preseason coaches' poll tonight and the bottom half on Sunday night. 

1. Georgetown (10-1, 0-0) -- Stock has gone down. 
I know, I know. The Hoyas have only one loss, and it came against the best team in the country. But if you're a Hoyas fan, you can't be happy with the fact that the loss to Memphis wasn't even close. You also can't be happy with the fact that Roy Hibbert and Co. were losing to a struggling Fairfield team in the second half. Then there's the matter of scoring, and whether the loss of Jeff Green (remember the buzzer-beater against Vandy in last year's NCAA tournament?) could hurt them when they need offense. I don't think they should fall out of the top 10, but I think the AP and Coaches' rankings (both 7) are a tad too high right now. 

1. Louisville (9-4, 0-1) -- stock has gone way down. 
I understand there have been injuries, suspensions and all the havoc that came from playing without two starters. But if you're a Ville fan, you can't be happy with the fact that if your team loses tonight to Kentucky, your team might be the biggest flop in the Bluegrass State. Rick Pitino's crew better turn things around, or it could join the Cardinals football team as teams that started the season in the top 10 but were sitting at home during the biggest posteason games. 

3. Marquette (11-1, 1-0) -- stock has gone up. 
 It's gone up because the Golden Eagles have an impressive record against a respectable schedule, and because in their only conference game, they destroyed Providence. The 30-point win over Oklahoma State is nice, as is the fact that the only loss was by four points to Duke. I was a little concerned at the beginning of the season, when the Tom Crean's team had trouble getting by Utah Valley State and Chaminade, but virtually every win since has been convincing. Another bit of good news for the Eagles is that what figure to be their two toughest conference games -- against Pitt and Georgetown -- are both at home. But watch out for UConn, which Marquette has to play at Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 20. 

4. Pittsburgh (12-1, 0-0) -- stock has stayed the same. 
Actually, it went way up, then back down again. The win over Duke -- especially because of the way they won it, coming back from a double digit deficit to win on a 3 in overtime at Madison Square Garden -- was great. For the time being, it put them on a pretty short list of teams that looked like national title contenders. But the 25-point drubbing at Dayton set them back, and winning without Levance Fields on the court won't be easy. 

5. Syracuse (11-3, 1-0) -- stock has gone down. 
There have been a few red flags, including a loss at home to UMass. And as good as Rhode Island is this year, that's a win Jim Boheim's crew would have liked to have gotten at home. But the biggest reason for concern was the Orange's lackluster performance in its Big East opener, when it barely crept by an awful St. John's team 76-70 at home. 

6. UConn (10-2, 1-0) -- stock has gone up. 
I thought from the beginning that this was an NCAA tournament team and I'm more sure of that now than I was in November. There are still some issues to overcome, such as the lapses in the past two games on defense. And it sure would be nice if Jerome Dyson could be a superstar every game, instead being an on-and-off type scorer. Or if Jeff Adrien would improve the way UConn needs him to. But this team went on the road and got pasted by West Virginia in its Big East opener last year. This year, they handily beat a fairly good Seton Hall team on the road. A win at Notre Dame would all but guarantee a 3-0 league start, since the next Big East game is at Gampel against St. John's. 

7. Villanova (10-2, 0-1) -- stock has stayed the same. 
Are the Cats an NCAA tournament team? Probably. Could they pull off a few upsets and win the Big East tournament? Maybe. But are they as good as their No. 17 national ranking? Clearly not after Thursday's blowout loss to Depaul. 

8. Providence (9-4, 0-1) -- stock has gone down. 
Conventional wisdom dictates that teams finishing in the top half of the Big East, if they have a few quality non-conference wins, should at least garner consideration for the NCAA tournament. So we have to be disappointed with the Friars for getting blown out by Rhode Island and being utterly humiliated by Marquette. If they're going to turn things around, Geoff McDermott needs to score more. 



Conference Play

Thanks to everyone who responded to my question about nicknames. Somewhere in the back of my mind I must have known that Division II Assumption (a 40 minute drive from my home town in Western Massachusetts) was nicknamed the Greyhounds. I did not, however, know that the joint affiliation of Harvey Mudd College and Claremont-McKenna College called itself the "Stags." As a Fairfield alum, however, I can still say I went to the only Division I school named the Stags. I also had not heard that as one reader pointed out, Manna Bible College joins Siena as a school nicknamed the "Saints."

And a good call by the same reader that UT-Pan American is also the Broncs.

That still means, however, that if our research was thorough, eight out of the 10 MAAC teams are the only teams in Division I with their respective nicknames. If anyone can find another conference with 80 percent unique nicknames, I'd be interested to hear which conference it is. I'd be surprised if there are any, especially since some conferences have multiple schools with the same nickname. Zach Mengel, a friend of mine who's a life-long UMass fan with a degree from Richmond, pointed out to me that the A-10 is one such conference: URI and Fordham are both the Rams. There are also two Tigers in the SEC (LSU and Auburn.)

A couple of fun tidbits that web site had about Rutgers:

Rutgers is not the only school in the country nicknamed the Scarlet Knights. Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa. also goes by that name; there are also three other schools with nicknames including the adjective "Scarlet:" the Scarlet Hawks of the Illinois Institute of Technology and two other schools that get asterisks next to their names because they don't really count as different schools: Rutgers- Newark is the Scarlet Raiders and Rutgers-Camden is the Scarlet Raptors.

A cooler Rutgers factoid is this: only two Division I teams are nicknamed the Bulls, and the Rutgers football team (whose bowl game I'm in Toronto as I type this to cover) played both of them this season: Buffalo and South Florida.

Now, on to some real basketball stuff. ....

Conference play is back now for good, with some teams (including Rutgers) playing their conference openers over the past couple of games and some others (including Rider) resuming their conference schedules after taking a fairly long break for final exams.

Last night featured some intriguing games in the Big East: DePaul upset Villanova, Notre Dame beat West Virginia, Marquette demolished Providence and Jerome Dyson carried UConn to a win at Seton Hall.

With conference play about to get into full swing, I thought we'd play a little game: I'll run down the teams in the MAAC and the Big East and put them into three categories: teams whose stock has gone up since the season tipped off in early November, teams whose stock has stayed more or less the same, and teams whose stock has dropped.

I'm interested to see what you guys think, so please let me know on which teams you agree with me and on which teams you disagree. Below is a rundown of the MAAC. Later today -- after I get my football work done and possibly go on a field trip to the hockey hall of fame -- I'll give you my Big East stock market watch.

Teams are listed in order of their finish in the preseason coaches' poll. Below that is my rankings based on how each team has done against its non-conference schedule and the early portion of its conference schedule.

1. Siena (7-5 overall, 2-0 MAAC) -- stock has stayed the same, which, since the Saints were picked to win the league, is a good thing.

At first glance, the record doesn't look great, but they've played an absolutely grueling schedule -- probably the toughest in the league -- and came out of it above .500 overall, having stolen a win at home against Stanford and given Syracuse all it could handle. Their most recent loss is to Memphis, which for my $0.02 is the best team in the country with room to spare.

2. Loyola (5-7, 1-1) -- stock has gone down.

A couple of the non-conference losses are excusable, including losing at Dayton and at Illinois. But a 92-68 loss at Iona? That's the type of thing that can't happen if you want to be considered an elite MAAC team. More importantly, it's something that can't happen if you want to secure a top seed in the MAAC tourney, and if it happens a few more times, the Greyhounds are certain to stay in the middle of the pack in the standings.

3. Niagara (9-3, 3-0) -- stock has gone up.

No one questioned that the Purple Eagles had a chance to win the conference. But at least judging by the way the votes were handed out, no one thought they were the team to beat. Joe Mihalich's team still shouldn't garner the respect that Siena gets, especially since the Eagles don't have a signature non-conference win. But they've won all three MAAC games convincingly and as he was last year, Charon Fisher is awfully tough to stop.

4. Rider (8-5, 1-1) -- stock has stayed the same.

Jason Thompson is the best player in the league and the rest of the starting five is filled with players who fit their roles very well. The Broncs have a marquee win over Penn State and haven't played poorly in a game yet. Had they beaten Niagara on the road or pulled out a win over either Murray State or Drexel, they'd be in the "gone up" category. But 8-5 is about what I expected, and I think the same thing now that I thought before the season began: they're a good team with a very realistic chance to win the league, but they don't yet deserve to be ahead of Siena or Niagara.

5. Marist (7-6, 1-1) -- stock has stayed the same.

We'll learn a lot about the Red Foxes -- and about Rider -- when the two teams square off tonight at Alumni Gym (there's an advance in today's Trentonian). They lost a LOT of talent, beyond just Jared Jordan, who I think was the best MAAC player in the last five years. But Syracuse transfer Louis McCroskey is a big-time player, the Foxes are well-coached and just about every player on the roster knows what it's like to play for a winning program. Like Siena and Rider, their record would look better on paper if they hadn't played a tough non-conference slate; Miami, Houston, UMass and Temple (in overtime) are among the teams to which they've lost.

6. Fairfield (3-9, 1-1) -- stock has gone down.

This is the team that won 10 of its last 14 games last year? There's no excuse for playing the way the Stags have played early, including losing to St. Francis of New York and getting pummelled at home by Siena. The league record looks OK, but the win came in overtime at St. Peter's -- a team last year's Stags would have beaten handily. Despite the loss of Michael Van Schaick -- who developed into an unstopable shooter who could create his own shot and knock -em down from anywhere-- there's a lot of talent here. But Ed Cooley's honeymoon period is going to be over pretty soon, and the folks in Southwestern Connecticut are sick and tired of watching mediocre teams.

6. Manhattan (7-5, 1-1) -- stock has stayed the same.

The Jaspers are talented (when haven't they been?) but have five freshmen and haven't gotten big enough contributions from upperclassmen like Devon Austin. They don't have any really impressive wins and their one conference win was at home, by three points over St. Peter's. The team from the Bronx needs to borrow a saying from Brooklyn: Wait til next year.

8. Iona (5-10, 1-2) -- stock has gone up.

It hasn't gone way up, but the Gaels are a legitimate team that can beat anyone in the MAAC. That doesn't mean they're going to, but during the debacle of a season they went through last year, there were plenty of nights -- even against weaker teams in the conference -- when they had no chance of winning.

9. Canisius (0-2, 2-10) -- stock has stayed the same, which is to say it's very low.

At least the Golden Griffs have won a couple of games and, with a young team, should improve as the season goes on. But at least right now, things aren't pointing in the right direction. Maybe they should sneak into one of Niagara's practices and see what they're doing differently.

10. St. Peter's (3-9, 0-2) -- stock has gone up)

That sill means John Dunne's team isn't very good and that the Peacocks have virtually no chance to finish in the upper half of the league. But as awful as Rutgers is -- and the Scarlet Knights are embarrassingly bad -- St. Pete's wouldn't have won that game a year ago.

If I had to turn in a MAAC poll, it'd look like this:

1. Siena; 2. Niagara; 3. Rider; 4. Loyola; 5. Marist; 6. Manhattan; 7. Iona; 8. Fairfield; 9. St. Peter's; 10. Canisius

What do you guys think?