Seven Day Savior (Team): New Jersey Schools
This week’s selection is not a team, but a state. The schools in New Jersey had a heck of a week. Both Rutgers and Seton Hall went 2-0 last week, and in the Hall’s case, its two victories, over Providence and Cincinnati, went a long way to making them look like and NCAA Tourney team. Fred Hill’s Rutgers squad needed the wins, over Louisville and on the road against Pitt, to possibly save his job. Now the Scarlet Knights have some serious momentum going. Interestingly enough, Rutgers and Seton Hall squared off last night. Even Princeton, which has fallen precipitously over the past three seasons, won for only the third time this year…granted, it was against a non-D1 school, but a win’s a win. In fact, of the four losses suffered last week by NJ’s 7 D1 schools, (I don’t count NJIT, who clearly made a mistake by opting up to Division 1), two of them were losses to other schools from the Garden State.
Seven Day Savior (Player): Amorrow Morgan
Sophomore guard Amorrow Morgan of Idaho State. The Bengals, who sit at 8-12 overall, are 5-2 in the Big Sky Conference and are in a virtual tie with league leader Northern Arizona, got 21 points from their point guard as they defeated NAU this past Saturday. Morgan was scoring at will against the Lumberjacks, which was good for Idaho State because they were down by as much as 11 points in the second half before the rest of the squad decided to follow Morgan’s lead. Earlier in the week, Morgan led the Bengals to an easy win over Sacramento State, not by scoring, but by handing out assists. He had 8 assists, but only one turnover in the game as well as scoring eight points. Morgan has been key for an ISU program that hasn’t been this high in the conference’s standings this late in the season in almost a decade.
Game of the Week (The one you DON’T know about): Winthrop vs UNCA
The top two teams in the Big South, Winthrop and UNC-Asheville, face off on Saturday in Asheville. Perennial conference heavyweight Winthrop is sitting in second place in the Big South with one loss. Asheville, on the other hand, which has already made national news because of 7’7” center Kenny George, is sitting atop the conference with an undefeated record. Both teams recognize the mental boost winning this game will give them, as the Big South is a one-bid league. That’s a shame because both teams have shown they can beat teams from the “power” conferences. Winthrop has already defeated Miami (FL), who will probably make the NCAA Tournament, and Asheville has defeated South Carolina on the road and lost at North Carolina by only 12 in a game that was closer than the score. Most importantly, however, the Big South has a conference tournament where games, including the championship, are played at the site of the higher seed. Asheville stands a much better chance of getting to the NCAAs if they can hold serve on Saturday and take a two-game lead on the Eagles.
Seven Days Under the Radar: South Alabama
The South Alabama Jaguars are quietly having one of the best seasons in the school’s history. The Jags are currently on a 13-game winning streak, lead the Sun Belt Conference with an undefeated 9-0 mark and have an overall record of 17-3. Perhaps most importantly, USA has an RPI rating of 27. Along the way, South Alabama has defeated Mississippi State, who is currently the leader of the SEC West, Southern Mississippi and Western Kentucky, while losing at Mississippi by 3 and at Vanderbilt in overtime back when the Commodores were still undefeated. Coach Ronnie Arrow, who is in his second stint as Jaguar head coach, has a squad dominated by upperclassmen and has four players averaging in double figures, including senior guard Demetric Bennett, who is averaging over 20 PPG. The high major conferences better hope that USA wins the Sun Belt Conference Tournament because if they don’t, barring a complete collapse, the Jags are going to get an at-large bid to the NCAAs.
Seven Days on the Hot Seat: Ben Braun
California’s Ben Braun has been able to bring some very good talent to the Berkeley campus, but he hasn’t been able to get it to ever fully gel. While a god recruiter, (Cal is one of the tougher academic institutions in the country), Braun has been criticized each year because of his supposed mediocre in-game adjustments. At the end of the past two seasons there has been noise made by the Cal faithful about dumping Braun, and the noise has gotten progressively louder. Last spring, there was a fairly unified effort by boosters and fans to convince Golden Bear Athletic Director Sandy Barbour to move in a new direction. Instead Braun was given another season or two because he last year he lost arguably his best player in 6’11” center DeVon Hardin. Well, Hardin is back and Braun is running out of excuses as Cal slipped to 9th place in the Pac-10 this past weekend after losing at home to Stanford. Braun and the Bears are 2-5 in the conference and four of those losses have come at home. Now the Bears travel to the Washington schools before starting the second half of their Pac-10 schedule which will include trips to L.A., Arizona and Stanford. Jay John was fired last week; Ben Braun may be the next pac-10 coach to get a pink slip.
Seven Days of Head Scratching: Refusing to Play Zone
As I was watching Connecticut host Louisville on Monday night, it dawned on me that the only reason that Louisville was staying in the game was because of Coach Rick Pitino, and more specifically his decision to go with a zone defense against the Huskies. It’s not important as to the specifics because the question that left me scratching my head was: Why don’t more coaches employ zone defenses in their repertoire? I have watched several games this year where I wondered out loud why a coach would prefer a man defense against a team that is so good at attacking it. In the Pac-10, teams insist on playing man against UCLA when they clearly struggle against a zone defense. USC ran zone against them and beat them. The Trojans ran a “gimmick” zone against Memphis and should have beaten the Tigers. Louisville ran a zone against the Huskies because Pitino knew that two of UConn’s best outside shooters were suspended. Pitino did this despite knowing his team likes to push the tempo. Coaches today seem less flexible with changing defensive styles because they feel that they want to establish an identity for their team. Jim Boeheim acts much the same way, only he refuses to play man defense, even when he has some outstanding athletes on his roster. It’s almost as if coaches are working as if their jobs were to look innovative and smart in front of the cameras. And here I thought a coach’s job at the D-1 level was to win games. Isn’t that the innovative and smart thing to do?
News of the Week: Tournament Bids
As January gets close to turning into February, the talk of who will make the Big Dance is beginning to heat up. Among the foremost topics right now is the total number of teams that will receive an NCAA Tournament invite from a given conference. Surprisingly, the ACC and the Big Ten are the current focal points of this conversation. I say surprisingly because it seems like each year both of these traditionally powerful basketball conferences are virtually guaranteed to get at least five teams into the Tournament. However, this year, both conferences have serious questions regarding about how many teams will get their tickets punched. The ACC has two locks in Duke and North Carolina, but then there is a jumbled mess. 9 of the 12 conference teams have at least 3 conference losses already and, outside of Clemson, all of them have middling computer numbers. The Big Ten is even worse off. Indiana, supposedly one of the top 2 in the conference, was defeated at home by a very average Connecticut squad. While Indiana is most likely a lock, along with Michigan State, only Wisconsin and Ohio State are even in a realistic NCAA conversation right now. Even worse, the conference sits 6th in the RPI standings, last among the so called “BCS” conferences. So what does this all mean? Major conferences such as the Pc-10 and the Big East may very well be the beneficiaries of this drop off, with both conferences looking at realistically getting at least 7 teams into the Tournament. More importantly, though, and here’s the news, it opens things up for mid-major conferences. There is talk of the Atlantic 10 getting as many as four teams into the Tournament, while the Mountain West can argue that their 3rd and even 4th place teams have better resumes than those in the middle of the pack of either the ACC or the Big Ten. Then there’s the Horizon League and West Coast Conference that have real chances of getting multiple teams into the Big Dance. Things can change between now and Selection Sunday, but don’t be shocked if there are some major surprises when the brackets are unveiled.