Incarnate Word Cardinals Perched Atop Southland - For Now

I think it's safe to assume Chum is a Cardinals fan - Jeff Bottari

In an interesting turn of events, the Southland conference currently features a small Texas school at the top of the standings. It's too bad it won't last, but it may be worth seeing how far from the bottom the Cardinals can finish.

Being a math nerd at heart, I always get a kick out of combing through data, looking for interesting patterns and anomalies that I was not expecting to find. In one of my recent searches, a little time and effort uncovered what I'm definitely considering an anomaly for now.

If you scroll down the standings page at ESPN, way at the bottom you find the Southland Conference standings. Last season it was a duel to the end of the year between Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin, who combined for a 31-5 conference record and 50 total wins between the two teams.

This year, SFA is right back at the top, sitting in second place behind,.. Incarnate Word? I had a vague recollection of this team as one that everyone used as their whipping boy in recent years, so I was curious how it came to be that, this holiday season, the Cardinals are 10-1 and leading the conference (and likely to earn two more wins to stay there heading into conference play).

The first fact became obvious when I clicked on their team page and saw that, outside of their loss at North Texas right before the Thanksgiving holiday, none of their opponents have logos next to their name, which ESPN does when it isn't a Division I opponent.

That makes sense, that UIW has only played one non-conference game against Division I competition, when you consider that schedules sometimes get made a bit in advance, and also that this is the first year of their four-year, transition-to-Division-I period.

It's great that sophomore guard Kyle Hittle is leading the conference in both overall and three-point field goal percentage while placing third in the conference at 17.7 points per game (good for a 3.2 HW/30). It's even better that junior Denzel Livingston has racked up a ridiculous 9.2 HW/30 on 17 points and 6.7 rebounds per game of his own. You can even chip in that senior Ian Markolf has missed two games and still leads the conference with 8.9 rpg and is second with 1.7 blocks per game.

But how do you figure out a team that leads a conference, but has gotten there not only by playing meager competition, but substantially meager competition? We are talking about a team that just ran their record to 10-1 with back-to-back wins (on consecutive nights) at home against Open Bible College, a school so small that men's basketball is their only sport, and the two games against UIW are their only two games this season to date.

They will finish up non-conference play with a rematch against Huston-Tillotson, an NAIA school from Austin, followed by a home game against Our Lady of the Lake, another NAIA school that sits a mere seven miles south of UIW's campus in San Antonio.

So we have a team with (more than likely) 12 wins versus only one loss, but that will include not just one game against Division I competition, but a total of four games against opponents who play above the Division III level. Do we really know anything at all about this team, other than the fact that their conference schedule might be pretty ugly?

I mean no offense to the Cardinals - I'm a little bit surprised that they've had to play so many teams that are below Division III, but it's hard to get quality opponents on short notice when you are just breaking into Division I. In their lone D-I game against North Texas, they played much better after the half than before, but posting more turnovers (10) than made baskets (7) is a great way to find yourselves down by 26 at the half, and it was climbing out of a hole from there.

Those HW numbers I mentioned earlier are hard to take at face value, since the pace adjustment factors we use aren't meant to handle teams or opponents below the D-I level, so we'll have to keep an eye on conference play to find out how good this team truly is or can be.

I can't imagine the gap is that far between UIW (essentially a very good D-II team) and schools like Lamar and McNeese State that represent the worst teams in one of the weakest D-I conferences. I don't expect a long line of blowouts similar to the North Texas game, but I'm certainly not expecting them to win their first two conference games on the road at SE Louisiana and New Orleans, either.

I'll be keeping a loose eye on this squad as the year goes by, because this could be a good study to find out a) just how big (or small) the gap is between the lowest D-I squads and the highest D-II squads, as well as b) just how much the HW metric is thrown off by not having D-I vs. D-I data to calculate from.

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