Wednesday, November 25, 2009

WKU Notebook 3: Indiana State

The Toppers can be assured of one thing: the national buzz is gone. Indiana State came in and handled the Toppers for 36 minutes before a furious rally tied the game with 0.6 seconds. Overtime, and a Topper runaway, seemed imminent. But, ISU's Harry Marshall launched an 80-foot pass that found Rashad Reed who collided with WKU C Jeremy Evans as he hoisted a prayer and it was answered by the official's whistle. There was definitely contact and Reed had momentum, but it was unclear if Reed got the shot off in time. And, honestly, a foul call on what transpired is RARE. But, there certainly was contact. And Reed sank the first free throw to win the game.

With a team now sitting at 2-2, Topper Nation must adjust their thinking from "we are really good" to "we are going to be really good." The pieces are there, but the bench is green and some of the vets are adjusting to new roles. Next up: at South Carolina on Wed, Dec 2.

When the smoke clears from these early season events and tourneys, TBB will start its work in earnest with the Watch List. Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

No MSG for WKU

A theme that I constantly sing every season pealed loud and deep on Tuesday night for WKU: life on the road is tough. The Toppers could not overcome some truly horrendous shooting (14-41 on 2-pt FGAs!) at LSU. Star guard AJ Slaughter was 3-17 and only JR F Sergio Kerusch could find the basket amongst the starters. The newbies did do some nice things that made this a nip-and-tuck affair throughout. Despite the 11-point final margin, this tussle was tied with under three minutes to play. But, down the stretch, it was all Bo Spencer and LSU. Thus, the high expectations for this non-Power power will not include the finals of the NIT Tipoff. Instead , they will host Cal St-Northridge and Indiana State on Tuesday in Bowling Green. The silver lining is that this club gets two extra home games to refine roles.

Tonight's GOI

--Montana at Denver. The Big Sky favorite visits one of the faves in the Sun Belt West.

--North Carolina vs Ohio State. Coaches vs Cancer showdown.

--Cal vs Syracuse. Part II of above.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Early Season Brackets

This is the Bracket Board, and even though I think preseason bracketology is goofy, actual brackets light my fire. And there are quite a few early season events. "Yet Another Basketball Blog" has done the linkety pastification work already, so here is one link to tons o' links to early season event brackets.


It was not pretty against Milwaukee. The Panthers tried to run with the Tops, found themselves in an early 10-point hole, then started to focus on slowing things down. It worked, as Milwaukee built a seven point lead in the second half. The Topper freshmen were cow-eyed and super transfer Cliff Dixon took an elbow to the nose that opened the faucet and he did not return. Things looked bleak. But, like many great non-Power teams of yore that have big seasons, WKU is loaded with experienced guys who have been through the fray and with a clear go-to guy. That said, it took a herculean effort from Sun Belt preseason POY A.J. Slaughter (30 pts, 5-10 from 3), a monster 2nd half from JR Steffphon Pettigrew (11 pts in the 2nd frame), and some solid minutes from SR NJIT transfer Nemanja Milosovic (6 rebs) to claw out a 69-65 win over a game Panther club.

This club has essentially six guys it figures to play a lot and they are all JR's and SR's. The depth hangs on Milosovic (a SR), and a bunch of FR. Building that bench will take time.

LSU took care of Indiana State, so the Tops and Tigers will tangle tonight in Baton Rouge. The winner gets a trip to Madison Square Garden. What must happen immediately to topple LSU on their home court is better rebounding and ball control. WKU and LSU tip at 7 pm CT.

Tonight's GOI
--Louisville vs Arkansas. Neutral court between two "name" programs.
--Temple at Georgetown. More NCAA hopefuls.
--Iowa State at Drake. In-state rivalry alert!
--Memphis vs Kansas. Jayhawks are one of handful of teams with realistic national title hopes.
--Clemson at Liberty. AT Liberty? Really? OK...keep an eye on this one.
--Gonzaga at Michigan State. Sparty is another title contender. Bulldogs lost a ton from last season.
--New Mexico at New Mexico State. In-state rivarly alert!
--St. John's at St. Bonaventure. Who is more saintly?
--Duquesne at Iowa. If the Big 6 team wins this game, it's an upset in my mind.
--WKU at LSU. See above. WKU believes it can build an At-Large resume this season.

Monday, November 16, 2009

WKU vs UW-Milwaukee

For the few hundred of you who read this blog every season, you know that I am one of the biggest WKU Hilltopper fans around. This blog started with the Darrin Horn era in 2004-05 and has included varying degrees of Hilltopper coverage over the last five seasons. I have always tried to balanced the big picture with infusions of Topper talk to illustrate points that are relevant to the whole. This season, I would like to be more intentional about that.

WKU might be the best non-Power team in the land this year. That is not a homer statement. You can find many sportswriters or other "experts" who put WKU on the really short list of teams that may go deep in March. Xavier and Dayton expect to be very good, all the while insisting that they are "Power" teams. Gonzaga and Butler are usual suspects and while the Indiana breed of Bulldogs should be nothing short of fantastic, the eastern Washington strain of Bulldogs are a bit of an unknown this season. Gonzaga has been to eleven straight NCAA tourneys and most of those were expected. They have some sorting out and proving to do this season.

Beyond those names, two keep popping up as threats from non-Power land: Siena and WKU. They seem to have it all. Recent NCAA success? Check. Lots of returning talent? Check. Hefty non-conference schedules? Check (Siena: @Temple, vs St. John's, @Georgia Tech, @Northern Iowa, host Saint Joseph's; WKU: NIT Tipoff [UW-Milwaukee tonight, potentially LSU, UConn, Duke, others], @South Carolina, vs Vanderbilt, @Louisville, @Southern Illinois, host Murray State and Mississippi State). These two will be sneaking up on no one this season.

So, I hope to report on WKU as a sort of example of what a contending non-Power team's trek through the season looks like. A few preliminaries are in order.
1. This team is not shying away from it's Sun Belt favorite role in the least. Coach Ken McDonald and his players have openly affirmed that status in the media. In their mind, they are trying to make the publicity and expectations work for them instead of being coy about them.
2. Want to make your mark as a non-Power team? Go on the road. The Toppers will not play a regular season home game until Dec 6, their sixth game. Now, they could play one before that...if they lose to UW-Milwaukee or LSU in Baton Rouge this week, they may host a consolation bracket. But this team is not thinking about that. They are expecting to play in MSG.
3. Why so confident? They return four starters from last season. They have two senior guards, one of whom is the preseason Sun Belt POY (A.J. Slaughter). They have a senior big man. The other two starters are rough-and-tumble, experienced juniors. They have one of the top JUCO bigs in the country (Cliff Dixon) and a SR transfer center coming off the bench (Nemanja Milosovic). They have one of the stronger recruiting classes coming in as well (including Alabama 6A POY Jordan Swing). WKU went to the Sweet 16 two years ago and last season they beat Illinois before falling on a last-second shot to Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tourney. There are not a lot of holes in this team.

So, through telling their story, you will not only get insight into one of this season's "it" teams, but also see what makes "mid-majors" so lovable. The road games. Playing in a conference that reaches from Miami to Denver. The in-conference rivalries. All the while, this team will be playing knowing that their At-Large status hangs by a thread in every game.

They begin this afternoon at 4.30pm in Baton Rouge, LA, against UW-Milwaukee in the "LSU Pod" of the NIT Tipoff. Milwaukee is another non-Power team with fairly recent success looking to make its mark. But, their roster is not as strong as WKU's and Tony Boyle, their top guard, is not likely to play. The winner likely gets LSU in a chance to jump into the national conversation before Thanksgiving by punching a ticket to New York City to play on the biggest stage in hoops.

And, while the Tops may not go quite this far in media interviews, I would bet that out of the four teams in Baton Rouge, WKU sees themselves as the favorite to get to NYC.

Tonight's GOI (Games of Import...first one!)
--Auburn at Missouri State. The Tigers were charging VERY hard at the end of last season. Let's see if it carries over in a road trip to a Valley Boy.
--VMI at Richmond. The wild child Keydets take their blistering pace into Richmond, an A-10 sleeper pick.
--FAU at SE Louisiana. The Belt needs to win these kinds of games to make a move upward this year.
--NIT Tipoff. Aforementioned, with pods at Arizona State, UConn, Duke, and LSU.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Wading In

Smell the salt in the air. Feel the first touch of the cold, watery foam as it nips at your toes. Sink ever so slightly in to the sand as the edges of formerly big waves breathing their last pull grains of sand right out from under your feet as they die. These flirty touches of the ocean only hint at what is coming: a full up-to-the-waist wade into the deep accompanied by the first crashing of a monster wave on top of your head. That cautious and gradual wade-in process is obliterated by that instant, fresh, cold, crushing wave sensation that simultaneously makes your gradualism futile and yet frees you to swim and cavort in the ocean unadulterated.

We have felt the nips at our feet. LeMoyne. Murray State at Cal. Isiah Thomas' debut at FIU in a trip at Chapel Hill. We have waded in ankle deep with the Coaches vs Cancer. But, that rogue monster wave, that chilly, aqua wall slams us in the face this weekend. There are 125 games on Friday, another 67 on Saturday, and yet another 50 on Sunday.

No Games of Import or Weekend Forecast on this first weekend. Just swim.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Local Flavor On First Night

Two of the eight teams in tonight's season-birthing are of special interest to TBB.

Murray State at Cal. Murray is a rural 3 hour drive from Bowling Green and the Racers and Toppers have a nice local rivalry in hoops.

FIU at North Carolina. Sun Belt member goes to Chapel Hill led by new coach Isiah Thomas.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Sun Belt Preview

I am not much on preseason picks. I like having some results to look at, peruse, analyze, or examine. All we have at this point are rosters full of potential, hopes, and dreams. Those are grand things and should be celebrated. I do not want to rank potential, hopes or dreams, so a more general approach fits better here.

Not all hopes and dreams are equal, mind you. So, I do think it is fair to at least meet teams where they are.

East: WKU, Troy. On paper, it is hard to imagine anyone other than one of these two winning the division. WKU is the clear favorite. While Orlando Mendez-Valdez was a big loss, it was more of the "spirited leader" variety than the "irreplaceable talent" variety. Gutty, clutch, and tough as nails, OMV will certainly be missed. But, this roster is brimming with veterans and infused with touted newcomers. WKU is one of the handful of non-Power teams getting talk on a national scale. Not as much as the usual suspects (Gonzaga, Butler, Xavier), but enough that I don't have to tell you that they are going to be good. Troy is a bit lesser known, but they are a run-and-gun bunch of shooters. They often play four guards and their top four guards are seniors this year. Brandon Hazzard is a POY candidate and Richard Delk is quite a player as well. The Trojans play ONE non-conference home game against a DI opponent (Marshall), so to say they will be road-tested is an understatement.

West: North Texas, UALR, Denver. North Texas has the most talent. UALR is the perennially the brawniest and the toughest. Denver has all five starters back from a team that was hitting its stride late last season and boasts a POY candidate and senior leader Nate Rohnert. All have flaws. North Texas played poor FG% defense last year. Denver was an awful rebounding team. UALR was turnover prone. But, each did a lot of things well and have quite a bit coming back. North Texas seems to be the majority pick amongst experts, but it is a mistake to count out UALR because they defend consistently. Denver may be a bit of a dark horse, but I like the Pioneers this year. What they do, they do extremely well, playing the slowest pace in all the land last year as well as leading the entire country in 2-pt FG%.

East: South Alabama, Middle Tennessee. Team USA has been pretty solid in Ronnie Arrows second go as the Jags' coach, but they lost a TON from last year's club. They have a preposterous number of new faces (15!?!?!) and very little returning. But, it's a mistake to discount Arrow. He will probably cobble together a decent team. Middle Tennessee has not met expectations the last two years. Maybe a year coming from back in the pack will be good for them, although Kermit Davis has to be feeling some pressure at this stage.

West: UL-Lafayette, Arkansas State. The Cajuns have all five starters back from a pretty bad team, so it's unclear whether that will be a good thing or a bad thing. Chris Gradnigo and Travis Bureau are a couple of talented 6-7 forwards, and from what I've seen, Gradnigo could be a 1st-team All-Conference player if he puts it together. Coach Robert Lee's seat is likely feeling a tad toasty, too, given the scrawny win totals over the last few years. Their top players are older and wiser, and both players and coaches should be hungry. If ULL can't have a decent season this year, it is unlikely it is going to happen for Coach Lee. Arkansas State was playing pretty well early last season before totally imploding over the last half of the season, largely due to some disciplinary problems at midseason. Two players were not invited back this season. Donald Boone is back and he is nice player. Brady has also brought in former Oklahoma State big man Martavius Adams (6-9, 255). If they avoid the problems of last season, A-State could have a decent year.

Looking for Improvement
East: FAU, FIU. The Florida schools never seem to get it together. And, FAU was bad, 6-26 bad, and they lost 4 of their top 5 scorers. Let's just leave it there. FIU hired Isiah Thomas with much ballyhoo, but they also lost 4/5 starters. These two are hoping to lay a foundation and improve game to game.

West: UL-Monroe, New Orleans. The Warhawks won just 10 games for the second straight year, but they return four starters and have a couple of recruits with some size.. If 6th-year senior guard Tony Hooper is back to his old self after a foot injury, ULM moves up into the "hopeful" category. UNO lost a ton from a marginal team. The do add Billy Humphrey, a Georgia transfer who averaged double digits for the Bulldogs in 07-08, and some newcomers that coach Joe Pasternack likes a lot.

The Sun Belt is a strange league, sprawling from Miami, FL, to Denver, CO. It has uneven team divisions and a conference tournament in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It has Thomas, Mike Jarvis, and John Brady as coaches. It has a potential killer team in WKU, and after a couple of down years, the Belt should be on the uptick this season. It should be a fun year.