Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Early Season Event Guide

Links to/commentary on some early season and holiday hoops tournaments/events. I'll probably add a few more and make this a permanent link at some point. But, this can whet your appetite for now. Some of these events tip off in less than two weeks.

2K Classic (Coaches vs. Cancer)
This one is set up for the four host schools (St. John's, Maryland, Texas, and Michigan State) to get through to MSG on November 16-17.

Basketball Travelers
They have put together six four-team sites to host round robin games.

BCA Invitational
All games are at Syracuse. The 'Cuse, St. Francis (NY), UTEP, and Penn will play a round robin.

Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Ohio State at North Carolina is the big headliner, but barring a significant shift in the cosmos, those teams will be in the bracket come March. Just as meaningful for NCAA profile purposes are:

--Florida State at Wisconsin. The 'Noles can make an early statement.
--Maryland at Illinois. Maryland has missed the NCAA Tourney two straight seasons. They could use a big start.
--Michigan State at Boston College. The Spartans can show that they cannot be written off as a rebuilding team with a win here.
--Indiana at Duke. What a start to the Kelvin Sampson era if the Hoosiers pulled off an upset in Cameron.
--Virginia at Purdue. Both teams looking to make a move upward.
--Iowa at VA Tech. Tech returns five starters and Iowa lost a ton.

Games are played Nov 27-29.

CBE (College Basketball Experience) Classic
Formerly known as the Guardians Classic, the CBE pods are hosted by Duke, Marquette, Stanford and Texas Tech. Pod winners will meet in Kansas City, MO, on November 20-21. Duke and Marquette should have easy roads, but Texas Tech will likely have to get through a seasoned Akron club. In fact, on a neutral court, I would favor the Zips. Even in Lubbock, Akron may be favored. Stanford's pod is a tossup, as both Air Force and Long Beach State reside in their section.

Great Alaska Shootout
Hofstra can get on the map in a hurry on Thanksgiving weekend. They look like the team to beat in this field.

Las Vegas Invitational
Teams will play at campus sites, then head to Vegas where the headline games include Western Kentucky vs. Ball State. Oh yeah, and Florida vs. Kansas. Not a bad November matchup, I guess.

Maui Invitational
This maybe the strongest of the in-season event fields. Oklahoma, Memphis, Purdue, Georgia Tech, DePaul, Kentucky, UCLA and Chaminade will do battle in Maui from Nov 20-22.

Old Spice Classic
This field is almost as strong as your Uncle Fred's scent after slapping on a boatload of Old Spice aftershave. Arkansas, SIU, Marist, Minnesota, VA Tech, West Virginia, Montana and Western Michigan will do battle in this Disney event. This is like a preseason Bubble Boy heaven. This one is also on T-giving weekend. Also, do NOT pull Uncle Fred's finger.

Paradise Jam
The PJAM is stacked! Alabama, Middle Tennessee, Toledo, Iowa, Xavier, VCU, College of Charleston, and Villanova comprise a meaty set of teams. Five of those eight figure to challenge for their conference titles. Games are played in the U.S. Virgin Islands November 17-20.

Preseason NIT
Regional rounds are played on Nov 13, 14, and 15, with the final four in MSG on Nov 22 and 24. The P-NIT also packs some heft and this year is no different. North Carolina, Gonzaga, Indiana and Tennessee are all in the bracket. Winthrop, Baylor, Rice, Butler, and Belmont all have the potential to score a big early season win.

South Padre Island Classic
I could not track down a good link to a bracket for this one. The field is solid with Sam Houston, East Tenn St, Wisconsin, Missouri State, Auburn, OK State, Delaware State, and Southern U. meeting up during T-giving.

SportsTime Ohio BCA Classic
Ohio State hosts VMI, Princeton, Loyola-Chicago, Kent State, South Dakota State, Alabama A&M, and IUPUI.

Top of the World Classic
This Nov 16-19 tourney includes Belt member Troy. Utah State looks like an early favorite.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Preseason Pitter-Patter

The foot pads of the 2006-07 season can be heard with clarity.

1. The MVC coaches like Creighton to win the league. SIU, Wichita State, and Missouri State are tabbed as top challengers.

2. Big Televen coaches picked Ohio State. I like Wisconsin to win the regular season, although the Buckeyes might be the favorite to win the conference tourney by the end of the season when all of the youngsters have had time to work out the kinks.

3. Games that count begin in just 8 days with the Coaches vs. Cancer. Maryland plays Hampton and the Sun Belt's own New Orleans takes on Vermont. Links to a slew of early season events are coming later this week.

4. Think the MVC is a johnny-come-lately on the hoops scene? Think again.

From the end of World War II through 1979, no league sent more different member institutions to the Final Four than the MVC.

Read the full story on Oscar Robertson and the Cincy-Bradley rivalry of yesteryear.

5. WKU's Courtney Lee is on the Wooden Award Preseason list. Forty of the fifty players listed hail from Big Six conferences.

A look at the early season and holiday hoops events are coming soon.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Preseason Bracket

It is simply guesswork at this point, but I've been tinkering on and off with a preseason bracket. After consulting many a website, Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook, and the Urim and Thummim, here is my opinion. Have a look at the first bracket of the season--and the only one until around New Year's. That is about the time the non-conference season wraps up. At that point, we can have a reasonable evaluation of which teams actually accomplished something before the conference slates begin.

The 1-seeds: Florida, North Carolina, Kansas. Nearly everyone is picking these three at the top of the heap. The early debate is about the 4th 1-seed. I'll go with the team that wins the Big East. Right now, I like Georgetown. They have great bigs, just like Hoya teams of yore. Pitt, Marquette, and UConn will surely have something to say about the Big East title before it's said and done.

Surprise teams: Virginia, Virginia Tech, DePaul. I am not seeing these teams get a lot of love. UVA and VA Tech return all five starters. DePaul returns four. I am a sucker for experience, I guess.

Anyway, this is mostly just for discussion purposes. I'm not going to vehemently defend any of these selections because there are no results on which to base an argument. It's just for kicks. Feel free to sound off.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sun Belt West Preview

Last season's champ (South Alabama) has shifted to the East division and the West looks as wide open as it has been recently. Let's have a look, shall we?

1. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans (14-15, 5-9 Belt)
The Trojans were snakebitten by the injury bug last season, but they still played some of the roughest hoops in the Belt. Rebounding machine Rashad Jones-Jennings (12.2 ppg, 11.3 rpg) returns and is a likely All-Conference performer. He is flanked up front by beefy, 6'7" 252-lb Byron Ray (8.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and 6'6" SO Lekheythan Malone (9.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg). Malone has the ability to be the go-to guy this season. That trio should form a solid starting frontcourt. Rashad Moss (JC) and Brandon Nichols will provide depth. The Trojans were hampered by horrid shooting last season and they figure to be much-improved in that respect. De'Andre Eggins (7.4 ppg, .386 from Three) played on a hurt knee all season and still managed a decent FR campaign. Coach Steve Shields loves Tarance Akins' shooting ability, but he missed all but two games with a foot problem last year. Those guys will help, but there are major concerns at the point. Zack Wright (12.2 ppg, 5.8 apg, 5.0 rpg) jumped ship in the off-season and Buddy Harding saw limited minutes last season. Freshman Steven Moore will need to deliver for UALR to climb to the top in the West.

2. Arkansas State Indians (12-18, 7-7 Belt)
Coach Dickey Nutt loves his recruiting class. After a yearly questioning of Nutt's status as coach for several seasons, A-State signed him to a 3-year deal and he says it allowed him to haul in what might be his best recruiting class. The Indians have 6'8" SR F Isaac Wells (14.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg) back to anchor the frontcourt. Big Theo Little (6'10", 255) returns, but he has been spot player throughout his career. ASU also likes newcomers Abayomi Ajasin, a 6-7 JUCO, and Detroit transfer Shawn Morgan. The frontcourt looks to be in decent shape, though a tad green. Senior guard Jim Jones (12.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and junior Yual Banks (7.1 ppg) were solid last season at the guard position and the Indians have added a host of talented backcourt running mates. Ryan Wedel, a 5'11" PG and Kansas Mr. Basketball, is aboard as is 2nd team All-American JUCO Adrian Banks. Chris Brown, another highly rated JUCO guard, has also been added and can shoot it. If these parts come together, A-State has the talent to make a run in the West.

3. New Orleans Privateers (10-19, 6-9 Belt)
The Privateers endured a 7th-level-of-Hell season in 2005-06. Not only was their campus and arena battered by Hurricane Katrina, but star PG Bo McCalebb (22.6 ppg in 2004-05) injured his wrist in the fourth game and was forced to redshirt. Coach Monte Towe packed his bags to assist Sydney Lowe at Towe's alma mater, NC State. New coach Buzz Williams is now at the helm to reshape the Privateers. This season, with McCalebb's return and experience guards James Parlow (10.6 ppg) and Jamie McNeeley (9.2 ppg, 5.7 apg) back, UNO may have the top backcourt in the league. C Ben Elias also had to redshirt last season with a knee injury (remember, 7th level, people) and apparently was woefully out of shape at the end of the year. Much will depend on how much the 6'10" Elias, 6'7" Jacob Manning (4.7 ppg, 4.1 ppg), and former Bob Huggins recruit 6'9" Asrangue Souleymane can provide up front. If they are serviceable, UNO could surprise people a bit.

4. North Texas Mean Green (14-14, 6-9 Belt)
The improvement has happened at a glacial pace, but NT gets a little better each season under Johnny Jones. They can improve again this year, but they will have to replace dynamo PG Isaac Hines and shotblocking C Jeffrey Simpson. They return a Sun Belt POY contender on the wing in Kendrick Davis (16.8 ppg) as well as G Calvin Watson (9.8 ppg) in the backcourt. They have signed San Jacinto JC PG Ben Bell who racked up 7.9 apg last season to fill Hines' slot. Michael Sturns (9.7 ppg) was kicked off the team during the season last year, but has been welcomed back. As with most Belt teams, the real questions are up front. Quincy Williams, Harold Stewart, Harold Edwards, Jonathan Jackson and Justin Howerton will not have to score a lot, but they do have to pose some kind of threat to keep teams honest and they must play some defense if NT is to continue their incremental improvement.

5. UL-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (13-16, 7-8 Belt)
These are not the Cajuns of the last few years. There are no proven players like Orien Greene, Tiras Wade, Brian Hamilton, Antoine Landry, Dwayne Mitchell, or Michael Southall to rely upon this season. There are an astonishing TEN new faces and EIGHT freshmen and many are homegrown boys from Louisiana. In fact, only 16 ppg returns from last season and that's if the injured Maurice Barksdale can go. G Elijah Millsap (yes--Paul's brother) was a big-time scorer in high school and will get a chance to ring it up immediately. Coach Robert Lee will be playing chemist all season to find out which newbies can play right away. ULL hosts the Belt tourney, and that is a shame for them, because this could be their least competitive team in years. Or, maybe the talented youngsters can surprise everyone.

6. Denver Pioneers (16-15, 7-8 Belt)
See Lafayette above. Mount Yemi (20 and 11) is now dormant at the college level for all eternity. The frontcourt has some veterans returning, including DeShawn Walker (13.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg). Walker will be relied upon heavily for scoring this season. Senior forwards Antonio Porch (7.8 ppg, 4.2) and David Kummer (6.2 ppg, 3.8 ppg) have plenty of Belt battle scars and internationl JC additions Adam Tanner (Aussie) and Chris Timms (English) will help. The backcourt is much more concerning. PG Steve Wetrich (6.9 ppg, 3.4) values the ball and will need to play well, because the real experience pretty much ends with him. A host of newcomers will jockey for playing time at the 2G. JC transfer Cedric Hill appears to be the most likely candidate. This will be a much different team than the Yemi-led squads of the last three seasons.

7. UL-Monroe Warhawks (10-18, 6-10 Southland)
Let me extend a hearty Belt welcome to ULM. The 'Hawks were not a good team in the Southland last season, so the step up to the Belt could be rough on them. Twelve players on the roster will be in their first or second season of college hoops. They do have some talent in redshirt FR PG Brandon Roberts and combo G Tony Hooper (10.6 ppg). James Perkins and Lance Brasher also saw significant time at G last season. The frontcourt has veterans (Darien Bynum, Dalky Melendez), but no one who looks to be a major threat. Like ULL, ULM will need some of the newcomers to step up to compete in the league.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hilltopper Hysteria/Sun Belt East

Hilltopper Hysteria
The hysteria was not quite hysterical in nature, but a few nuggets were taken away from the WKU Hilltoppers' season kickoff event last Friday night.

1. Incoming FR PG A.J. Slaughter (Shelby County, KY) is for real. The kid is quick, rangy, and has good end-to-end speed. He drives, floats, and shoots well, and he will nab his share of steals on defense. It was only a short scrimmage, but his strengths were obvious.

2. None of the frontcourt players are likely to dominate individually, but they are a long and athletic bunch. Lots of wiry, interchangeable 6'7"-6'9" bodies are on the roster. If this group can play solid defense and box out with abandon, that will be enough for this team to be successful. It is not clear if any of them have a back-to-the-basket game, but that is not terribly important for Coach Darrin Horn's style.

3. The Tops had no true starting PG last season, but now they have JC All-American Tyrone Brazelton, improving SO Orlando Mendez-Valdez, Ivory Coast native Desire Gabou, and adapted SG's from last season in Ty Rogers and Courtney Lee. The aforementioned Slaughter could be used in a pinch, but that does not seem necessary this season.

4. The Tops need a second fiddle to the fine Stradivarius that is Courtney Lee (17.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.6 spg, .408 from Three, .847 FT%). Senior G/F Benson Callier (8.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, .438 from Three) looked like he might be ready to take it up a notch. His biggest weaknesses last season were his wild drives to the hoop that lead to forced shots or a turnover, and his overall inconsistency. He looks much more collected this year...of course, this was a meaningless scrimmage. Time will tell.

This Topper talk leads us to today's preview of the Sun Belt East Division. And, like every other publication out there, I will take the Tops to win the division.

Sun Belt East Preview
1. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (23-8, 12-2 Sun Belt, 1st Round NIT)
I have said much above, so no long preview is needed. This is Horn's first full roster of his players, and he is chirping about his army of athletes. The non-conference schedule is brutal (at Georgia, at Tennessee, at Nebraska, at Montana, vs Florida, host SIU, host UAB), and the team is pretty young (only two seniors), so the losses may come early on. But, this is the most talented group he has had to this point. Lee is a big-time player and the bench is deep. The questions are whether the PG position is solid, and how much the frontcourt will produce. Ultimately, the Tops have the best player, the most overall talent, and the deepest team in the league. This team will get a little slack this season as they try to fill the void left by Anthony Winchester (18.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg), but expectations will be sky-high in Bowling Green next year.

2. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (16-12, 8-6 Sun Belt)
Fats Cuyler, Marcus Morrison, and Bud Howard were important cogs in the Blue Raider machine last season. Their departures will require several players to step up. MTSU has a legit big man in the blossoming 6'10" Theryn Hudson and a solid outside shooter in Adam Vogelsberg (12.4 ppg, .417 from Three). Up front, two redshirt FR, Dino Hair and Desmond Yates, have good buzz surrounding them and will help on the wing. Senior Kyle Young (6'10") has bulked up to 222 pounds and will assist in the post. In the backcourt, SO Kevin Kanaskie and JC transfer Nigel Johnson will handle the point guard duties. Calvin O'Neill and Marques Johnson also return, adding depth to the guard corps. MTSU has good talent, but do they have a "gamebreaker?" The answer to that question will probably determine whether or not they can challenge in the East.

3. South Alabama Jaguars (24-7, 12-3, 1st Round NCAA)
The Jags lost seven players from last year's NCAA Tournament team. To many a Belt fan's surprise, they retained their coach anyway. Coming off an NCAA berth and a huge loss of personnel, lots of folks figured Pelphrey was gone. Not so. Pelphrey will rely on three transfers to anchor the frontcourt in 6'7" Kenny Hooks (Oregon State), 6"7 Brandon Davis (Birmingham-Southern), and 6'9" Ernest Little (UAB). The only returning frontcourt player of import is Leandro Buboltz (4.6 ppg). The backcourt returns a bit more seasoning with guards Carlos Smith (7.1 ppg, 2.9 apg), Demetric Bennett (8.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg), and Stephen Cowherd. Richmond transfer Daon Merritt is expected to be one of the top newcomers in the league and should help right away. He will need to if South AL is going to defend their Belt Tourney title.

4. Troy Trojans (12-18, 6-9 Belt)
Last season was not a great one in Troy, but it did have its moments. Like the 76-49 whipping they hung on regular season champ WKU. Or the 63-point half on 15-22 3-pt shooting they displayed against Arkansas State in the Belt Tourney. But, those were lights in an otherwise dim season. Unfortunately, All-Belt PG Bobby Dixon is gone as is sharp-shooter Boo Ramsey. The Men of Troy do get SR Utah transfer Richard Cheney (on the Andrew Bogut-lead Sweet 16 team) who will help in a big way. The rest of the backcourt is a laundry list of transfers and freshmen. The frontcourt is in much better shape. Cedric Jackson and Sammy Sharp are both full-time starters who averaged double figures in scoring. There is depth with Jarvis Acker and Bernard Toombs as well. Chaney is likely to be a force, so if the PG position can be solid, Troy should be be able to hold their own on most nights.

5. Florida International Golden Panthers (8-20, 4-10 Belt)
Last year was supposed to be the year that FIU made the leap in the East. Instead, they lost 20 games, and they return only one starter from last year's team. Kansas transfer Alex Galindo is expected to help immensely, and FIU returns some good guards in Johwen Villegas (10.4 ppg), Elvis Lora (9.1 ppg), a solid SG recruit in Dejon Prejean, and newcomer PG's Michael James and Erick Nsangou. Up front, a lot is being hung on FR Cedric Essola. There are not a lot of post threats on this team, so FIU is going to struggle against teams with skilled bigs. Coach Sergio Rouco would love to avoid the PG injury bug for once and see what happens.

6. Florida Atlantic Owls (15-13, 14-6 Atlantic Sun)
New conference, new coach, and a high roster turnover; that is not the ideal situation for Rex Walters in his first season as the head man at FAU. There are NINE new Owls in the barn, so one cannot expect FAU to do too much in their first season. They do return a couple of nice players in G DeAndre Rice (16.1, 2.7 rpg) and F Carlos Monroe (11.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg). The Owls had low expectations last season and Matt Doherty led them to a surprising winning season. Maybe Coach Walters can surprise everyone again.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Tennessee, Nebraska, and Hilltopper Hysteria

Tennessee Volunteers (22-8, 12-4 SEC, 2nd Round NCAA)
Any volunteer is a good volunteer, but there are an awful lot of first-time blood donors in Knoxville. Blue Ribbon projects THREE true freshmen as starters, which means two things: 1) Bruce Pearl lost some players, and 2) Bruce Pearl has brought in some players. Gone are starters PG C.J. Watson (15.3 ppg, 3.9 apg), F Andre Patterson (9.4 ppg, 6.7 rgp), and C Major Wingate (10.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg), as well as key reserve G Stanley Asumnu (8.0 ppg). The three FR projected as starters are highly touted PG Ramar Smith, PF Duke Crews, and C Wayne Chism. These talented newbies join one of the top shooters in the country in G Chris Lofton (17.2 ppg, .437 3FG%, .917 FT%) and a quintessential "team guy" in G/F Dane Bradshaw. The perimeter depth is there with reserve guards Jordan Howell, Marques Johnson, Jajuan Smith and FR Josh Tabb. The glaring question mark is depth up front with Wingate's unexpected departure.

Pearl's teams play fast and they score the ball efficiently. This team will be greener than last season, but it is probably more talented. The Vols played the #20 fastest pace last year and ranked #20 in Adj Off Eff. They played solid D as well, ranking in the top 100 by creating lots of turnovers. However, opposing teams roasted the Vols when they did beat the pressure by shooting 36.1% from Three and a whopping 52.6% on two-pointers. This was among the worst in the country (#309), but Pearl's style will give up easy hoops if teams can beat the press. However, Pearl's intensity is here to stay and UT should not drop off too much from 2005-06. If the FR deliver and the post holds up, they will likely be a Top 25 team again this season.

Nebraska Cornhuskers (19-14, 7-9 Big XII, NIT First Round)
The Huskers can be assured of one thing: they will NOT look like last season. Not only did they lose three starters and some key reserves, but coach Barry Collier left for the AD job at Butler, his alma mater. The new coach, Kenneth "Doc" Sadler, has a completely different personality as well. Nebraska is going to be a very different basketball team than they were a year ago.

Can they be better? That might be a tall order considering that F Wes Wilkinson, G Jason Dourisseau, G Joe McCray, and F B.J. Walker combined for nearly 40 points and over 20 rebs per game and none of them returned to Lincoln. Sadler did a good job saving most of Collier's recruits and the talent level looks pretty good (they like incoming 6-11 Aussie C Aleks Maric) , but this is a young team in a coaching transition. They will rely heavily on the senoir leadership of PG Charles Richardson, Jr. (4.4 ppg, 3.3 apg) and SO G Jamel White (8.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, Big XII All-Freshman). The incoming talent will have to contribute early and often. The Tops play the Huskers in Lincoln on Sat., Jan 6.

Hilltopper Hysteria

In just hours, practice officially begins across hoops nation. From Pauley to The Palestra, from Austin to Ann Arbor, and from North Carolina to North Dakota State, teams can now implement press schemes and do tip drills with coaches and whistles present. Find a local college tipoff party, load up the young 'uns, and watch some live roundball! This writer will be attending Hilltopper Hysteria in Bowling Green tonight. Details coming tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Montana and Southern Illinois

These two clubs enjoyed strong finishes to their seasons last year. Montana even manhandled Nevada in the first round of the NCAA Tourney last year en route to a final 32 showing. SIU has been an NCAA mainstay for what seems like an eternity. Both expect to be pretty decent this season.

Montana Grizzlies (24-7, 10-4 Big Sky, 2nd Round NCAA)
The Grizzlies lost their two best backcourt players in Kevin Criswell (16.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Virgil Matthews (10.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, team leader in assists and steals), but their biggest loss might have been coach Larry Krystkowiak. Krystko took a position as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks over the summer and he is replaced by one his former assistants, Wayne Tinkle. UM does return their leading scorer and rebounder in 6-8 All-Big Sky F/C Andrew Strait (16.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Forward Jordan Hasquet, G/F Matt Dlouhy, and G Matt Martin are capable returning role players. Reserve PG Brian Ellis is not much of a shooting threat, but he handed out over 3 apg while playing just 16 mins per contest last season. Folks in Missoula also seem pretty excited about adding a top JUCO in the healthy form of a 6-4, 240 lb, mack truck named Gus Chase. The Griz have enough returning to make a strong defense of their Big Sky crown.

Tinkle was a Krystko assistant, so fans can expect more of the razor-sharp offensive execution and shooting (#11 nationally in Adj Off Eff) they have grown to love. The defense was only average (#166), but it was good enough to win 24 games. The Griz will need some folks to step up in the backcourt, but the frontcourt is stacked with size and skill, and the bench has some meat on it. The most jarring part for Topper fans is that Montana was 13-1 at home last season (including a 19-point pasting of Stanford), and that lone loss was by 4 points to a very good UW-Milwaukee team. It will be tough to come out of Missoula with a win.

Southern Illinois Salukis (22-11, 12-6 MVC, NCAA First Round)
Like the Florida Gators earlier this week, SIU returns a full boat. All five starters return from last year's roller coaster ride that ended as MVC Tourney champs. It starts with Jamaal Tatum (15.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.2 apg), who has been suspended for the first three games, but will be back for the Old Spice Classic and SIU's first real tests. Senior G Tony Young (11.6 ppg) and SO G Brian Mullins (All-MVC Freshman and All-MVC Defensive Team) join Tatum to form a tough, seasoned backcourt to lead the charge. There is depth with Wesley Clemmons along with freshmen Joshua Bone and Tyrone Green.

Up front, the Salukis possess twin threats in Matt Shaw (10.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and Randal Falker (9.8 ppg, 7.8). Falker was a force in the MVC Tourney, outplaying Bradley's Patrick O'Bryant to help seal the NCAA invite in the MVC title game. There is depth up front as well with Jamaal Foster, Tony Boyle, Jordan Armstrong and Chris Cornelius. This is a likely NCAA team.

Statistically, it is no secret that SIU does it with a grinding pace (#16 slowest) and some of the best defense in the country (#10 in Adj Def Eff). The offense is just average, but it scores enough for the stifling D. The eye-popping stat is that opponents shot just 30.0% from 3-land last year against SIU (#4 nationally). That has to be a concern for Topper fans. But, this one is in Bowling Green, and it should be a dandy.

Tomorrow, we look at Tennessee and Nebraska and preview tomorrow night's Hilltopper Hysteria.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

UAB and Eastern Kentucky

Today's two opponents will be two of the most well-attended games of the season in Diddle Arena...for very different reasons. UAB is a perennial NCAA team with a name coach, and getting a school of UAB's stature into the friendly confines is always exciting. Eastern Kentucky is a cross-state rival, and Topper fans enjoy victories over the Colonels like no other. Only Murray State, Middle Tennessee, and maybe UL-Lafayette are even close. Kentucky and Louisville do not count, since those two avoid scheduling WKU like we were E Coli infested spinach/carrot juice/ground beef.

Side note: my copy of the Blue Ribbon basketball yearbook arrived today! It is officially basketball season.

UAB Blazers (24-7, 12-2 CUSA, NCAA First Round)

The Blazers will certainly have a different look than the past few seasons. Gone are eternal PG Sqeaky Johnson, F Demario Eddins, G Derrick Broom, and sharp-shooter Marvett McDonald. Also gone is former coach Mike Anderson who has taken his "40 Fastest Minutes in Basketball" to Missouri. Enter beleaguered former Indiana coach Mike Davis. Davis has Robert Vaden (an IU transfer) and Walter Sharpe (a Mississippi State transfer) waiting in the wings for next season, but this season looks a bit like a transitional year.

The Blazers do return backcourt players Wen Mukubu and Paul Delaney, as well as 6-9 F/C Frank Holmes, who all played significant minutes last year. Lawrence Kinnard and Brandon Tobias will also be called upon a lot more this season. UAB inked a big-time FR in 6-10 forward Jeremy Mayfield, who originally signed with Oklahoma, but was let out of his commitment after Kelvin Sampson bolted for Indiana. Mayfield was a top 50 player coming out of high school and is considered a top-five prep school player this season. Davis also signed JC All-American PG Andre White to help fill the enormous gap left by Squeaky Johnson.

Statistically, last year's number will not mean much since Davis will employ a much different style than Anderson's rip-and-run defense. As one might expect, UAB led the country in opponent's turnover percentage (#1). That's likely going to change under Davis. So, this looks like it could be a bit of a down year for UAB before they field a powerful squad next year with Vaden, Sharpe, and a more seasoned group of Davis-recuited players. Still, UAB should vie with Houston and a handful of others for second fiddle in CUSA. Memphis once again looks like the team to beat.

Eastern Kentucky (14-16, 11-9 OVC)
The Colonels were not a great team last year, so the fact that they lost the bulk of their scoring does not bode well. PG Matt Witt (18.5 ppg, 4.4 apg, and exhausting his 17th year of eligibility) is gone as is G Jason MacLeish (17.8 ppg, .479 from Three). They also lost Alonzo Hird, one of their top frontcourt players. They desperately need G Mike Rose, G Julian Mascoll, F Darnell Dials, and F Michael Brock to pick up the scoring slack, although not one of that quartet averaged more than 7.1 ppg last season. Dialls was impressive at times last season and probably has the most potential to become a go-to guy.

Statistically, EKU was one of the most horrid defensive teams in all the land, ranking #326 in Adj Def Eff. They were smack in the middle offensively and actually shot it quite well from the field as a team (52.4 on Twos, 36.5 from Three). The defense was simply terrible. With Samford and Tennessee Tech looking pretty solid, EKU does not figure into the OVC title chase this season. But, they can expect a salty student section when the visit the Toppers in Bowling Green on Sat., Dec 2. This is a long-time football and basketball rivalry and EKU stole one on the gridiron this season. The Topper faithful will be seething for this one.

Tomorrow, we preview a pair of 2006 NCAA teams in Montana and Southern Illinois.

Florida and Ball State

While I was posting about Tennessee State's improved team yesterday, a wicked story broke about the Tigers: Bruce Price has suffered ANOTHER ACL tear and will miss the entire season. Tough break for TSU, and Price has to be very frustrated. Here's to a full and speedy recovery for Bruce.

We march on with the Hilloppers two opponents in Las Vegas on Thanksgiving weekend: the defending national champion Florida Gators and Ball State.

Florida Gators (33-6, 10-6 SEC, NCAA Champions)
The defending national champs return their TOP SEVEN players. Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, Chris Richard, Corey Brewer, Al Horford, and Walter Hodge all return. View their gaudy stats here, because I'm not going to type them all out. The Gators also added New York's Mr. Basketball in Jonathan Mitchell, a 6-7 forward who broke Ben Gordon's all-time scoring record at Mt. Vernon High School--so, I guess he can play. They have two other capable freshmen coming in as well. Suffice it to say that Florida is stacked on top of stacked. There is not much more that I can add to what is already being said about the juggernaut Gators.

What makes them so good, besides a stockpile of talent? They had the #3 most efficient offense in the country and the #6 most efficient defense last season. That will win you some games. They were #1 in KenPom's overall ratings by a wide margin. Their eFG% was 56.9%. They shot 39.1% as a team from 3-pt land. In fact the only area in which the Gators were even close to mortal was in taking care of the ball (#139 in turnover %).

They are good. REALLY good. The Tops will, uh, have their hands full in this one.

Ball State Cardinals (10-18, 6-12 MAC)
BSU slogged home with a 1-5 mark in their last six games last season. But, the Cardinals have some reasons to be optimistic about this year. First, they return All-MAC performer Skip Mills (17.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg). The 6-3 forward ended the season by scoring 34 and 38 points in the last two games of the season last year. He is a MAC POY candidate. BSU also returns PG Peyton Stovall who went down with an injury in the second game of the season last year. As a sophomore, Stovall averaged 16.7 ppg. The Cardinals have an excellent tandem in these two hombres. Forward Deandre Peyton is a solid performer up front as well.

Outside of those three, there are lots of question marks. BSU lost PG Maurice Acker (10.2 ppg, 4+ apg) and their top shot-blocker in Charles Bass. The bench was fairly thin last year, so the Cardinals are going to need multiple players to step up if they want to challenge in the MAC. They have six new faces that will get plenty of oppotunities to contribute.

Last year, BSU played a slow pace (#262), bad offense (#231), and pedestrian defense (#177). Their strengths were interior defense and defensive rebounding. But, teams lit it up from 3-land on the Cardinals at a 38.2% clip (#308) and Ball State sent opponents to the FT line more than any other team in the entire country! They were #334 and dead last in opponent's FT rate. They have a couple of nice players and some young blood coming in this season, and there is a lot of room for improvement.

Tomorrow, we hit UAB and Eastern Kentucky.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Tennessee State and Towson

Today's preview covers the two home game opponents connected to the Las Vegas Invitational. The Tops will play Florida and Ball State in Vegas on Thanksgiving weekend.

Tennessee State Tigers (13-15, 11-9 OVC)
Tennessee State fought the good fight last season and finished with a respectable record. They also picked up a flurry of wins to close the season, prevailing in five of their last six regular season contests. They did this despite losing G Bruce Price, who had averaged 19.5 ppg before going down with a torn ACL in December. With Price, TSU was likely a winning team and an OVC contender. How big of a loss was Price? Well, he shot an astounding 67 free throws in six games and was playing over 36 mins per outing. He returns this season for his junior campaign. EDIT: Sadly, Price tore his ACL again recently and will miss the upcoming season.

In addition to losing Price, the Tigers lost two other starters in Kareem Grant and Wayne Arnold, who combined for over 25 ppg. But they do return 6-10 C Larry Turner (6 ppg, 4.3 rpg), PG Reiley Ervin (9.1 ppg, 4+ apg), and 250 lb. F Clarence Matthews (13.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg), who is a horse down low.

Statistically speaking, the Tigers were a decent offensive team and were quite efficient from 2-pt range (#38 nationally in 2-pt FG%). The defense was pretty sorry (#280 Adjusted Def Efficiency). They will need to step it up on defense to play with the cream of the OVC. TSU has enough talent to make some noise in the OVC if a couple of the incoming players can provide some depth and they can shore up the defense.

Towson Tigers (12-16, 8-10 Colonial)
This other species of Tiger returns a lot. They lost one starter from last year's club and they return one of the best players under the national radar. Gary Neal, a LaSalle transfer, rang up 26.1 ppg last season after he became eligible at mid-season. Neal was the A-10 rookie of the year his FR season and was 2nd-team All-A-10 at LaSalle. He is not solely a scoring machine either. He had one of the lowest TO-per-possession ratios in the country last season and he also averaged 2.9 steals and nearly three assists. He shot 80% from the line and .405 from downtown. This cat can play, and he has a little help coming back.

The loss of quality big man Lawrence Hamm (15.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg) will hurt, but 6-9, 250 F Dennard Abram returns. With a solid triumvirate of guards available in Neal, Tim Crossin (8.9 ppg, nearly 5 apg) and Velmar Coleman (6.1 ppg, 3+ apg), Towson has some quality players. Much like TSU, they need depth to take a step up in the conference this season. And, also like TSU, they will have to improve their defense (#291 in Adj Def Eff). They will play fairly fast and score the ball, but their long-term success depends on their ability to upgrade the D.

Previews for Florida and Ball State coming tomorrow.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Kennesaw State and Georgia

It's still early, and I figure if you are reading this blog right now, you either 1) are a WKU Hilltopper fan or 2) are so anxious for hoops that you will read just about anything hoops-related. In either case, the next few days are for you! I will put WKU's non-conference opponents onto the Ark two-by-two for the next six days. That will get us to next Friday's Hilltopper Hysteria season kickoff. After that, there will be a full Sun Belt preview and the release of a preseason bracket before actual games begin in early November. That will be the only bracket until sometime after Christmas when the conference season starts to crank up. I will blog most days from here until April, though. With that said, let us look at the two teams that the Toppers will face on their season-opening two-game road swing.

Kennesaw State Owls (12-17, 10-10 A-Sun)
The Owls lost nine of their final ten games to end last season, but some injuries contributed to that slide. However, they do return the cream of their perimeter scoring including four starters who averaged double figures, and they have added nine new players, seven of which are freshmen. The lost starter scored under 5 ppg. The Owls have nearly all of their top players back.

It starts with senior PG Golden Ingle, a transfer from none other than Western Kentucky, who tossed in 16.6 ppg and distributed 6.1 apg as well. His backcourt mates Ronell Wooten (15.5 ppg) and Andre Morgan (12.8 ppg, A-Sun All-Freshman) are capable scorers as well. The other returning starter is 6-4 F Brent Ragsdale (11.2 ppg). While the returning players are smallish, the Owls have some size coming in this season. FR bigs John Scott Allison (7-0, from Scotland), Alex Cornett (6-10), and three other FR 6-6 or taller will undoubtedly get chances to contribute early in the post.

The Owls like a moderately paced game (#158 in tempo last season). They were one of the worst defensive teams in the country last year (#328 of 334 in total Def Efficiency) as teams scored nearly at will by shooting 56.1% from 2-pt range. That is not a typo. They were #333...next to last in the entire nation. The Owls' strength was creating turnovers and turnover margin. They were #50 in taking care of the ball and they were #23 in opponents' turnover rate. That is how they won their twelve games.

This is no gimme for the Tops. This will be the Owls' biggest home game in history and the first "real" game for both teams. WKU has superior talent, but this one should scare Topper fans. Remember Troy last season? KSU will be a similar environment and a similar situation: an experienced team playing the biggest home game in their history.

Georgia Bulldogs (15-15, 5-11 SEC)
Is this the year that the Dawgs make the jump? Maybe, but those hopes took a hit this summer when Georgia decided not to renew the scholarship of their top returning inside player (Younes Idrissi). Apparently, he was "not living up to student-athlete expections." That's vague enough. But, UGA is stacked on the perimeter. Levi Stukes, Sundiata Gaines, Channing Toney, Mike Mercer, and Billy Humphrey are all excellent players. In fact, those guys were UGA's top five scorers from last season. They have another good wing in Terrance Woodbury who had his inaugural campaign cut short by a stress fracture. They have one of the more experience and deep backcourts around this season.

Like KSU, their concern lies up front. Dave Bliss and Steve Newman play hard, but possess limited skill sets. Felton nabbed 6-10 C Albert Jackson from Hopkinsville, KY, and he may need to contribute early. The Dawgs also have Takais Brown, a 6-8 forward from talent-rich Flint, MI, coming in this season. If UGA is to make any noise in the tough SEC, they will need one of the big guys to step up in a major way.

Georgia played a crisp pace (48th in the country) and some good defense (#62 Def Efficiency) last season. That's probably faster than Felton likes to play, and that he probably wants the pace slower and defense even better. The offense was more pedestrian (#153 Off Eff). In fact, of SEC teams, only lowly Ole Miss had a less efficient offense. Furthermore, among Ken Pomeroy's offensive statistics, UGA failed to crack the top 100 in ANY of them. The Dawgs achieved their .500 record with D. If they can maintain that level of defense and get something from the interior to open up shots and lanes for their talented backcourt, the Dawgs might make the jump this year. If they struggle inside again, there is probably no room to climb in the SEC.

The Toppers will have their hands full in Athens. Stopping that battery of guards will be a challenge.

Previews for Tennessee State and Towson coming tomorrow or on the weekend.