Is that belief in the air? You bet it is.
As 2018 comes to a close, the Never Made the Tournament Club has provided us with some holiday cheer at Mid-Major Madness since our last update. After the situation looked dire, the Club closed non-conference play with a string of upsets that put some new members on the map. Let’s take a look.
Forget Grand Canyon, the Utah Valley Wolverines are the new “team we’ve anointed to challenge New Mexico State” in the WAC. Utah Valley earned the impressive road win that Grand Canyon repeatedly failed to attain in non-conference play, defeating Fresno State 64-60 on Saturday. Mark Pope’s team is on a five-game win streak and have won 10 of its last 11. With New Mexico State looking a little more vulnerable than usual last week, Utah Valley will have some serious confidence heading into conference play.
The Wolverines lost three starters from last year’s team, including center Akolda Manyang, but the team has survived with new additions and major improvements. The best story of the bunch must be point guard T.J. Washington, a transfer from Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. This is why you come to this website, folks, you come for the Coffeyville Community College takes. Anyway, Washington has proved himself at the Division I level, averaging 26.6 minutes a game and 8.3 points per game. He’s starting to split time at point guard with Ben Nakwaasah, who is developing into a very solid, all-around player. New Mexico transfer Connor Macdougall has also provided some solid minutes at center.
Of course, the team still revolves around Toolson brothers Conner and Jake, who generally provide the main offensive spark for the team. Jake Toolson is averaging a career-best 52.4 percent from three. He’s No. 10 in the country in true shooting percentage. Conner owns a very solid 59.8 percent true shooting percentage himself. Utah Valley starts conference play at Grand Canyon on January 3.
Since our last update, Gardner-Webb has won TWO buy games against ACC opponents. So much brutality in these Runnin’ Bulldogs. A 79-69 victory at Georgia Tech and a 73-69 win at Wake Forest have sustained an eight-game winning streak for Gardner-Webb, who can fairly claim to be the best team in the Big South right now. The Runnin’ Bulldogs have not made a conference championship final since 2005 against UCF in the Atlantic Sun. The last time the Runnin’ Bulldogs won eight consecutive games came under Chris Holtmann (yes, that Chris Holtmann!) in 2013. Could this be the year? Radford, last year’s NCAA Tournament representative, has another good squad and played Maryland somewhat close on Saturday and own a win over Texas. Again, we shall see what happens in conference play.
You can just repeat that sentence ad infinitum for all of these teams. NJIT is still rolling, despite a blowout loss at Houston. The Highlanders still haven’t had a performance against a good team of note, so the jury is still out. In the Summit League, conference play has already started, but Mike Daum still exists, so we have nothing to report. Western Illinois held Daum to 15, but unfortunately conceded 85 points to his teammates, losing 100-58. William and Mary showed signs of life with wins over Towson and James Madison. In the biggest upset of the NMTC so far, SIU-Edwardsville picked up a stunning road win over Northern Colorado. They are not going to make the NCAA Tournament, but it was a fun game for those who saw it (I must admit I did not).
Finally, we should talk about the Maine Black Bears. Maine is bad. There’s no doubt about that. That hasn’t stopped them from playing four overtime games this year, including a double-overtime win over Fordham and losses to North Texas and St. Peter’s (not the worst results!) . The latest one was an absurd 90-93 loss at Central Connecticut. Maine hit two buzzer-beating threes to prolong the game to two overtimes, but they still lost. Elsewhere in the America East, Hartford and UMass Lowell remain mediocre but fine. The big boon to their hopes is that Vermont, the class of the conference for the last two years, is not as good as it once was. America East play starts on Jan. 2.