November 16, 2011
Since 1999 when it advanced to the Elite Eight to begin a 13-year run of NCAA Tournament appearances that’s still alive today, Gonzaga has set the standard when it comes to college basketball success among ‘mid-major’ programs.
But with all due respect to Mark Few’s program, Butler has eclipsed its accomplishments with back-to-back runner-up finishes in the NCAA finals. Also, Virginia Commonwealth made it to the Final Four last season and Davidson got all the way to the 2008 Midwest Regional finals before missing a potential game-winning shot at the buzzer against eventual-champ Kansas.
In other words, we have more teams to discuss than Gonzaga in terms of mid-major contenders. Nevertheless, we’ll start with Few’s bunch that always plays the nation’s most challenging non-conference schedule.
The ‘Zags are off to a 2-0 start with wins over Eastern Washington (77-69) and Washington State (89-81), but they failed to cover the number as double-digit favorites in both contests.
Gonzaga usually uses frequent-flyer miles galore in November and December, but that’s not the case nearly as much this year. The Bulldogs play at Illinois (Dec. 3) and at Xavier on New Year’s Eve, but they’ll take on most of their non-conference slate at home. Teams like Notre Dame (Nov. 30), Michigan St. (Dec. 10), Arizona (Dec. 17) and Butler (Dec. 20) will travel to Spokane.
Butler captured its first win of the year on Nov. 15, knocking off Chattanooga by a 57-46 count as a 13 ½-point home favorite. The Bulldogs fell to 0-2 ATS after also failing to hook up their backers in a season-opening 80-77 overtime loss at Evansville.
Brad Stevens’s squad lost three of its best players in Matt Howard (16.6 points per game), Shelvin Mack (16.0 PPG) and Shawn Vanzant. Andrew Smith, a six-foot 10-inch sophomore center, has all the makings of becoming a premier player. He scored 16 points and pulled down 10 rebounds against the Moccasins.
Another sophomore big man, forward Khyle Marshall, is expecting to make a big jump in 2011-2012 after playing outstanding in last year’s Tournament, especially in the second half against Florida. Chase Stigall, Ronald Nored and Chrishawn Hopkins will often be on the court together to compose a 3-guard lineup.
Nored might be the country’s best on-the-ball defender along the perimeter, but his lack of a perimeter jumper often limits his offensive impact. Stigall is a streaky 3-point shooter that needs to have a big season.
Stevens will lead his team into the following non-conference games: vs. Louisville (Nov. 19), at Indiana (Nov. 27), vs. Xavier (Dec. 7), vs. Purdue (in Indianapolis on Dec. 17), at Gonzaga (Dec. 20) and at Stanford (Dec. 22).
Akron is a team that really caught my eye with its 78-68 win at Mississippi St. as a nine-point underdog. The Zips have all the ingredients needed to pulla first-round upset in the NCAA Tournament. For starters, they have a pair of solid ‘bigs,’ including one of the country’s best shot blockers in Zeke Marshall, who forced Arnett Moultrie into a 2-for-13 shooting performance while swatting away five shots.
Keith Dambrot’s team has experienced guards that take care of the basketball and get after it defensively. He employs a nine-man rotation that includes Xavier transfer Brian Walsh, junior forward Quincy Diggs, who had a team-high 19 points at The Hump, and a pair of impact freshmen in Nick Harney and Demetrius Treadwell.
I think bettors would be wise to keep an eye on the Zips, who will probably be an attractive underdog spot Nov. 28 at West Virginia.
Then again, maybe Akron won’t be too healthy an underdog in Morgantown. We say that because fellow MAC contender, Kent State, beat the Mountaineers by double digits on Nov. 15 as a nine-point road underdog.
Belmont is another school we’ll most likely be reminded of again on Selection Sunday. The Bruins return nine of 11 key players from last year’s 30-win team and they gave Duke a scare in a 77-76 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium in their season opener. Belmont wasn’t quite as competitive on Nov. 15 when Memphis pulled away late for a 97-81 victory.
Unfortunately for everyone, Belmont doesn’t have anymore attractive games remaining with the possible exception for a BracketBuster matchup in February.
Harvard and Princeton are poised to engage in another memorable fight for the Ivy League’s NCAA bid. The Tigers needed a buzzer-beater in a tiebreaker game to prevent the Crimson from earning its first NCAA bid since 1946.
Harvard returns its entire roster, while Princeton has a new coach in alum Mitch Henderson and eight of its top-10 scorers back.
Tommy Amaker’s squad plays at UConn on Dec. 8 and will try to win at Boston College for a second straight season on Dec. 29. Harvard also hosts St. Joseph’s and George Washington from out of the A-10.
Princeton nearly pulled a stunning first-round upset of Kentucky last year in the NCAA Tourney’s opening round, but it got off to an inauspicious start a few days ago when it lost at home to Wagner by 16. The Tigers’ non-conference slate includes these matchups: at North Carolina St. (Nov. 16), at Rutgers (Dec. 7), at Siena (Dec. 22) and at Florida State (Dec. 30).
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
--The hot seat for LSU’s Trent Johnson became warmer Nov. 15 when Coastal Carolina won a 71-63 decision over the Tigers. The same can be said for Darrin Horn at South Carolina after losing 58-53 at Elon College.
--Saint Mary’s is another mid-major that’s become prominent in recent years, as Randy Bennett has done an excellent job, particularly with his recruitment of foreign players. The Gaels thumped Northern Iowa, a Sweet 16 team two seasons ago, in one of ESPN’s late-night games during its Tip-Off Marathon.
--UCF second-year head coach Donnie Jones, who held the same post at Marshall and served under Billy Donovan at Florida as an assistant for a decade, has been suspended for the first three games of the season amid an NCAA probe. The same investigation resulted in the resignation of UCF AD Keith Tribble last week.