NCAA Basketball Weekly Recap: Takeaways & Top 25

Wofford’s Big Upset

Early on in the college season, upsets were a bit hard to find.   Arizona was losing every day it appeared in the Battle 4 Atlantis, but most of those tournaments ended up with championship games that were expected (Duke-Florida, Michigan State – North Carolina, etc.)

That early tranquility has turned into upset city as we finish off the pre-conference schedule across the country.  The biggest upset of them all may have happened on Wednesday night, when Wofford went to Chapel Hill and knocked off defending champion North Carolina.

Wofford has been in the NCAA Tournament four times since joining Division I basketball in 1995, and while they have never won a game, they have been quite competitive in three of those games, losing by four to Wisconsin in 2010, eight by BYU in 2011, and three by Arkansas in 2015.    This is a school that started building up a mid-major resume over the past several seasons, but have not quite been able to get fully over the hump.   Despite their success, which includes five 19+ win seasons in a span of six years from 2009-2014, it appears that head coach Mike Young didn’t get any bites from bigger schools.  Usually a coach who has success at a mid-major is gobbled up by a bigger institution, but either he has lost out on some jobs he interviewed for, or there hasn’t been much interest.

Wofford entered Wednesday’s game with a 7-4 record, which included blowout road losses at South Carolina, at California, at Texas Tech, and at UNC-Asheville.  Of these four schools, Texas Tech is the biggest NCAA Tournament threat, though Asheville should be a contender in the Southern Conference.  Their biggest win before beating North Carolina came when they defeated Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets do not appear to be a strong team this season.  While they beat a disappointing Northwestern squad, they also have a loss vs. Grambling, a team that is widely considered one of the least successful programs in the nation.

This was by far Wofford’s biggest win in school history.  They have singular wins on their ledger over South Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina State, Purdue, Wake Forest, Xavier, and Cincinnati, but none of those schools were ranked at the time Wofford beat them.

When I see an upset like this, the first place I look is the roster.  In recent years, with bigger schools becoming younger while mid-major schools are more likely to have teams littered with juniors and seniors, it would stand the reason that sometimes experience just wins out.  Wofford’s two top players are juniors and the roster only features one senior, reserve guard Derrick Brooks.   This is not a team that starts five seniors who are coming together at the right time for an NCAA Tournament push – they are experienced, but not overwhelmingly so.

Both teams hit on seven 3-pointers, so this wasn’t a game where the Terriers won by going crazy from behind the arc.  Rather, they won because they hit on 50% of their shots from inside the arcs, while North Carolina hit on a mere 43.3% from the same area.   Wofford shot a better percentage while also taking 12 more shots from that range, which is why they won the game despite Carolina getting to the free throw line more often.

This shouldn’t kill the Tar Heels season, but it does give you pause.  They weren’t in the upper echelon of squads entering this campaign, but a series of upsets while they were carrying only one loss (vs. Michigan State) allowed them to climb in the rankings.  They will probably fall down to where they should be in the pack.

A Broncs Tale

Full disclaimer:  I am a graduate of Rider University, which is a small school in Lawrenceville, NJ.   The last time the Broncs (yes, the missing second “o” is correct) participated in the NCAA Tournament was back when I walked down their halls to class in 1994.  Before Kevin Bannon’s controversial run at Rutgers, he was the architect of a school that made the NCAA Tournament two years in a row, going 40-20 in those two seasons.  One of those seasons resulted in a blowout loss to Kentucky, but they actually made Connecticut sweat a bit in 1994, before succumbing by 18.   Rider is not a school you associate with big-time college basketball, as the well has run dry since the Bannon years.    In the late 2000s, however, they had a player by the name of Jason Thompson, who went on to have a decent 7-year NBA career.  His Rider squads fell short in conference tournament play, however, and were never able to make it to the Big Dance.

This is not a piece designed to write about how the Broncs are back, though they have shown some signs of life in recent years in the MAAC.   This year’s squad was destroyed by Xavier earlier in the season, but hung tough against Providence before losing by four.   On Friday night, however, they were able to knock off Penn State, a school that is not known for consistently good basketball results, but any win over a Big Ten school is huge for a program like Rider’s.   This is a squad that has defeated in-state rivals Rutgers and Princeton one time each.   They have never defeated Seton Hall.   When they defeated Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights were still a member of the Big East, meaning their win over Penn State represented their first ever win over a Big Ten school (it should definitely be noted that they rarely play Big Ten squads, other than Rutgers).    Rider ranks 43rd in the nation in points per game, and have five players averaging 10+ points per game.  While they haven’t played a top-shelf schedule like many of the bigger schools, their schedule also is not bad.   Every team they have played has been on the Division I level, and they scored 84 in that game against Providence.   Their ability to score is probably real.

Can this be the year that Rider gets back to the tournament after 20+ years of frustration?   Maybe.    Monmouth has been the conference darling over the past few seasons, but are expected to take a step back this year.  The preseason favorite to win the conference appears to be Iona, but Rider is predicted to finish in the top part of the standings.    Anyone who has watched a small conference tournament knows how wide-open they can be, and the MAAC figures to be a wide-open conference before we even reach the tournament.

I figured that since not much happens during this week of the college basketball schedule (that is until Wofford beats North Carolina!) that this would be as good a time as any to do a quick write-up on the school I graduated from – the school that most people across the country likely have never heard of despite their Division I status.

Top 25 (Last week’s ranking in parenthesis)

  1.  Villanova (12-0) (1) – Crushed Hofstra to put a finishing touch on an undefeated run through their non-conference schedule.  The streak figures to continue vs. DePaul, but the trip to Butler, despite Bulldogs’ rough start, is never fun.
  2. Duke (12-1) (2) – In their first game since being upset by Boston College, the Blue Devils destroyed Evansville by 64 points.    Florida State is their next ACC opponent.
  3. Michigan State (12-1) (3) – The tough win over Oakland may have lit a fire under the Spartans, who beat up on Houston Baptist by 45 and Long Beach State by 42, their first two 100-point performances since scoring 100 vs. Mississippi Valley State on November 18, 2016.
  4. Arizona State (12-0) (4) – Back to their high-scoring ways, as they put up 199 points in two games this week.  The competition wasn’t tough, but the Sun Devils have been scoring on almost everyone this year.  The party really gets started with their Pac-12 opener at Arizona on 12/30.
  5. Texas A&M (11-1) (6) – As expected, after surviving a tough early season schedule, A&M took care of business in their tune-up games, though Northern Kentucky gave them a game, losing by only 6.   Open up SEC play at Alabama.
  6. West Virginia (11-1) (8) – Streak is up to 11 since winning opener.   A trip to Oklahoma State awaits in their Big 12 opener.  Is this the team that will break Kansas’ streak of regular season Big 12 titles?
  7. Oklahoma (10-1) (13) – This team is going to be a match-up nightmare for everyone.   They annihilated Northwestern by 26, scoring 104 points in the process.   Their lowest output so far this season was 82 points in a win over North Texas.   Huge match-up against undefeated TCU will open Big 12 play.
  8. Xavier (12-1) (9) – Going on the road to beat Northern Iowa is not easy.  Hardly any big school wants to play Northern Iowa in a true road test, but Xavier did it and won by 10.   They haven’t been blowing out teams recently, but the winning has continued, with their only loss to red-hot Arizona State.
  9. Kansas (10-2) (12) – Stanford is not a good team, but winning a true road game against a big conference school will always impress on some level.  The Jayhawks have been shaky at times, and will need to be on their A game when they visit Texas in their Big 12 opener.
  10. Wichita State (10-2) (11) – Arkansas State and Florida Gulf Coast did not go down without a fight against the wobbly Shockers, who need to find their game as they head into American Conference play.   Their opener is at Storrs against a UConn team that will at least put up a fight.
  11. Virginia (11-1) (14) – They are suffocating everyone, which is par for the course.  This squad has proven that they have the defensive chops year in and year out.   Will it translate during the tough ACC grind coming up?  I am not so sure, but I am results based, and they are getting results.
  12. Miami (10-1) (5) – Going to Hawaii to play in the Diamond Head Classic so close to ACC play was a good test for the Hurricanes, and they came up short against a pesky New Mexico State squad.   The Aggies have earned a trip to the Big Dance in five of their last six seasons, and have six consecutive 20+ win campaigns (all this success hasn’t translated into tournament play, as they have lost ten consecutive tournament games since their 1993 victory over Nebraska in the first round)
  13. Cincinnati (11-2) (15) –  They did what they were supposed to do in their tune-up games, destroying both opponents this week.   They welcome in Memphis on New Year’s Eve to begin American play.
  14. Purdue (12-2) (16) – The middling start by every other team not named Michigan State in the Big Ten may have left the Boilermakers off your radar.  Forget about them at your own risk, as they may be the only team to pose any kind of threat to the Spartans this year.
  15. North Carolina (11-2) (7) – Upsets happen, and they followed up their woeful loss to Wofford with a win vs. Ohio State by 14.  They will start ACC play against Wake Forest, with a trip to Florida State after that.
  16. TCU (12-0) (18) – They did everything they were supposed to do to get to conference play undefeated.  Now, the gauntlet begins:    Their first three Big 12 games are against Oklahoma, Baylor, and Kansas.   If they can pull off a 2-1 record, any skepticism that remains will be put to pasture.
  17. Kentucky (9-2) (10) – Arguably, the two toughest opponents on their relatively simple early season schedule were Kansas and UCLA.  They lost to both, but will have one more shot at a big out-of-conference score when they play Louisville.
  18. Seton Hall (11-2) (19) – Followed up the rough loss to Rutgers with a couple of easy wins.    They open up Big East play with a strong Creighton team at home.
  19. Arizona (10-3) (20) – Winning streak reached 7 when they crushed Connecticut.    The game against Arizona State on 12/29 should be circled on everyone’s calendar.
  20. Florida State (11-1) (21) – Struggled a bit with Charleston Southern before knocking out Southern Miss.   The preliminaries are over, however, as a trip to Duke awaits.
  21. Baylor (10-2) (22) – The Big 12 is mightily strong, and Baylor is getting a bit lost in the mix.  Not to fear, Bears fans:  If you are legit, the time has come to prove it with a Big 12 opener at Texas Tech followed by a home game vs. TCU.
  22. Texas Tech (11-1) (23) – The team I have been watching closely all season continues to cruise along, though their big win earlier in the season over Northwestern continues to lose some luster.  As I have said about all the teams in the Big 12, they will be given plenty of chances to prove themselves.
  23. Clemson (11-1) (24) – Given how they have played otherwise, that early season loss to Temple is befuddling, but losing to Temple is not nearly as bad as some of the other losses we have seen.   They don’t play a ranked ACC team until 1/13 (Miami), but have games against Louisville and NC State (twice!) before that date.
  24. Tennessee (9-2) (NR) – Finally earning my respect (which is meaningless regardless) by jumping into the Top 25.  Other schools under consideration from last week (Boise State, Stephen F. Austin) both lost a game this week, while the resume for St. Mary’s does not match-up at all against the resume of Tennessee.   They start SEC play against the always tough Arkansas Razorbacks.
  25. Creighton (10-2) (25) – They have a few nice non-conference wins, and both losses are at least reasonable.   Their game at Seton Hall to begin Big East play will be a nice test for both squads.

Dropped out:

Gonzaga (10-3) (17) – A big thud against San Diego State.  I realize it was a road game against a team that has proven to be difficult over the past decade or so, but it still is a dagger for a squad that now has to enter WCC play, where hardly any big tests reside.   While we can get a better feel for every team in the Top 25 during conference play, Gonzaga will be a big mystery.  The usual tough tests against St. Mary’s and BYU will be their only measuring sticks from this point forward.

Just missed:

St. Mary’s (11-2) – Remember, this was the squad picked to win the WCC over Gonzaga this season.  Early results indicated that it may be a pipe dream, but not any more.  When they meet this season (first game is at Gonzaga on 1/18), we will find out a lot about both teams.

Louisville (10-2) – Their two losses were close affairs against Seton Hall and Purdue (which was a road game).  There is nothing to be ashamed of there.  Beat Kentucky on the road and they will be back where they think they belong.

 

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