Conference play is in full swing and, frankly, I couldn’t be happier. It’s been tough trying to peg teams this year, watching them alternate between far better and far inferior competition. Now, let’s see what teams like Northern Iowa can do in the Missouri Valley or San Francisco in the West Coast Conference.
Most leagues have only played one or two games, but already we have an idea of where some may be heading.
As 2016 turned to 2017, here’s what the mid-major world was watching:
Boise State: A pair of wins over Utah State and Colorado State to open Mountain West play is enough to raise some eyebrows, as Chandler Hutchison has posted three straight 20-plus-point games. Next up: a trip to UNLV.
BYU: The early season concerns for the Cougars linger, but you can’t ignore a four-game winning streak that includes a win at a better-than-expected Loyola Marymount squad.
Evansville: Make it eight wins in nine tries, including a home victory over Northern Iowa on Sunday. The Purple Aces have also beaten Boise State and Murray State.
Illinois State: Make it three wins in a row for the Redbirds, who throttled a good Loyola Chicago team this weekend behind 16 points from Deontae Hawkins. Illinois State is now 2-0 in the MVC.
Colorado State: Had the Rams beaten Boise State, it would have been two wins in a row against quality competition. Instead, Colorado State has dropped four out of five.
Davidson: All of the Wildcats’ losses in the non-conference were excusable. Then they lost at home to Richmond to drop to 7-5 on the year. Is Davidson not as good as we thought?
Loyola Chicago: That’s now three straight losses for the Ramblers, and though falling to Illinois State isn’t anything to be ashamed of, the game was not close. The 81-59 loss comes after an inexcusable defeat at Drake.
Utah State: The Aggies have also lost three in a row and their first two in Mountain West play. Their opening-night win over UC Irvine (KenPom 184) is still their best on their resume.
Team of the Weekend (by Game Score):
G Eric Garcia, Wofford: GmSc 32.4 | 31 pts | 6 ast | 16-16 FT
G Keith Braxton, Saint Francis (PA): GmSc 29.5 | 27 pts | 13 rbd | 4 ast
G James McGee, Southern Utah: GmSc 28.0 | 32 pts | 5 rbd | 2 ast | 2 stl | 6-8 3PT
G Randy Onwuasor, Southern Utah: GmSc 27.8 | 37 pts | 12 rbd | 7-11 3PT
F Reggie Upshaw, Middle Tennessee: GmSc 29.4 | 34 pts | 9 rbd | 4 stl
A Daum good finish:
Down the stretch, is there ever any doubt that Mike Daum is getting the ball for South Dakota State? He led the Jackrabbits to a 73-72 win over their in-state rival by converting the game-winning layup with 2.8 seconds remaining. Check it out:
Overtime games riddled the college basketball landscape on Saturday. Monmouth trailed Rider by 13 at halftime, but stormed back to tie before falling by three in the extra session. Meanwhile Little Rock and Missouri State both avoided bad losses by outlasting Louisiana Monroe and Indiana State respectively. One of the more disappointing results came from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, who some (me) thought could contend in a suddenly wide-open Southland. Instead, the Islanders lost at New Orleans in OT.
Other overtime results: UNC Asheville beat Gardner-Webb, North Dakota beat Sacramento State, Weber State beat Montana, Tennessee Martin beat Morehead State, and St. Francis College beat Central Connecticut (I was there, check out this shot by Eric Bowles to tie the game at the end of regulation).
UAB’s weird season continues:
The Blazers have alternated wins and losses all year and it’s super weird. As you’ll see, KenPom expects it to continue.
What we learned:
Every week, I ask two questions in our weekend preview that I hope are answered with Saturday and Sunday’s games. Here they are for this week:
What should we make of Northeastern?
The trouble with Northeastern was that the Huskies won a host of tough games in the non-conference, but also fell to LIU Brooklyn, Cornell, and Stony Brook. They’re game Saturday against a tough William & Mary squad was supposed to be a good test to see how they actually stack up against competition at their level. The result? A 20-point win behind 24 points from Alex Murphy (5-6 from three) and 21 more from Devon Begley (4-6 from three).
VERDICT: Northeastern has proven that it can be a top-tier CAA team.
Who is the second-best team in Conference USA?
We knew that Middle Tennessee is the best team in Conference USA. After that, Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, and Rice all had a case for second. This weekend, Louisiana Tech walloped Southern Mississippi, as expected, while Old Dominion beat Rice by six at home.
VERICT: The Monarchs for now, but only because the Bulldogs have yet to beat anybody close to good.
Gonzaga’s unbeaten quest is now two games into conference play. The Bulldogs won at Pacific, 81-61 on New Year’s Eve.
This week: at San Francisco (Thurs.), at Portland (Sat.)
KenPom’s unbeaten probability: 10.4%
Alabama A&M and Mississippi Valley State remained winless over the holiday, with the Bulldogs falling at Bowling Green and Western Michigan, and the Delta Devils getting crushed at Drake.
There are five more teams who have not beaten a Division I school:
North Carolina A&T
Louisiana Lafayette at Little Rock, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
It’s not often that the Worldwide Leader puts the #FunBelt on one of its two main networks, but we get lucky Monday night when last year’s NCAA Tournament spoiler hosts a Ragin’ Cajuns squad that should challenge for a top-three finish in the conference. Louisiana Lafayette dropped its first game of Sun Belt play to Arkansas State and will have its hands full against Marcus Johnson and company if it wants to avoid an 0-2 start.
Have a great week, everyone!