Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Mid Majors Baker's Dozen - December 15, 2009

When I started writing this Baker's Dozen this morning, I thought back to the start of the season. I figured I would have two CAA teams (check), two West Coast Conference teams (check), two Horizon teams (check), two Missouri Valley teams (check) and a Southern Conference team (check). So all those are in place.

And of course, there are no A10 teams, because to me the Atlantic 10 is not a mid major conference. As for the terrific A10 and the reasons they aren't a mid major, well that's for another day (soon, very soon).

However, imagine the following scenarios for my rankings;

1) One CAA team that made it is VCU. However, the other CAA team that made it is not ODU, George Mason, James Madison or Hofstra.

2) The Southern Conference team that made it is not Davidson, Charleston, or Chattanooga.

3) Not only did an Ivy League team made the list, but TWO Ivy League teams are on the list.

4) The MAC has no teams, not even in the honorable mention category, and the honorable mention from the WAC is not Utah State or Nevada.

5) Western Kentucky who has three wins the last two NCAA tournaments and a recent win over Vanderbilt, gets an honorable mention only.

6) The teams I picked from certain conferences, the Ohio Valley and the Southern, are the best teams in their respective conferences right now, but Joe Lunardi picked other teams from those conferences in the first Bracketology listing for the season. Why? Ask Lunardi!

If you said to me in November that all of those scenarios would occur, I would say "you're nuts". But here we are. Those are the scenarios.

So, without further ado, the tastiest thirteen mid major teams in the country and it's A10 free.

1) Northern Iowa (9-1) - The Panthers have picked up right where they left off from last year's NCAA Tournament team. Neutral site win over Boston College, road win over in state rival Iowa State and beatdowns of Iowa and Siena put Northern Iowa #1 in our list. The Panthers nearly average four scorers in double figures led by Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Adam Koch, both of whom are in the top ten in the Missouri Valley in scoring. The Panthers really don't do anything exceptionally well statistic wise (highest category for the Panthers in the MVC is third in scoring defense), but they know how to win. First game of the Missouri Valley conference schedule is at Creighton, so a big test early for Northern Iowa.

2) Gonzaga (8-2) - The Zags were supposed to be "rebuilding" this season. I think everyone got "rebuilding" confused with "reloading". With returning players Matt Bouldin and Stephen Gray, along with a healthy Robert Sacre, and one of the best freshmen in the country in Elias Harris, Gonzaga has been able to win the Maui Invitational over the likes of Cincinnati and Wisconsin. The Zags never shy away from tough opponents. Still on the schedule - Duke, Illinois and Oklahoma before an absolute killer WCC road trip - at Portland, at Saint Mary's and at San Diego to start the conference season.

3) Butler (7-3) - Perhaps a Top Ten ranking was too much for the now #17 Bulldogs. But it's not how you start, it's how you finish. Only three losses were to ranked teams - Minnesota, Clemson and Georgetown. Big win at home this past Saturday against Ohio State. Still upcoming, two tough games - home to Xavier and at UAB before conference play starts. Gordon Hayward had a terrific game vs. Ohio State and leads the Bulldogs in scoring, averaging nearly 17 points per game. But the Bulldogs are based around Matt Howard. When Howard is out of the lineup, the Bulldogs are simply a three point shooting team. Howard has also struggled from the field, shooting only 41.2 percent as opposed to 55 percent last season. Howard is often seeing double and triple teams. When Howard gets on track, so will the Bulldogs, a scary thought for any team facing them.

4) Western Carolina (10-1) - Where did these Catamounts come from? Last year they were 16-15 and lost to Charleston in the first round of the Southern Conference Tournament. This season, they already have ten wins and several of the quality type - a win over A10 Duquesne, an impressive road win at Bradley, then the coup de gras, a road win over Louisville. First, they do it with depth. Eight players average 15 or more minutes per game. Second, they do it with defense. First in the SoCon in steals, 10 per game, first in FG percentage defense, 38.4 percent, and second in three point FG percentage defense at 25.6 percent. Third balanced scoring, with five players averaging 8.5 points or more per game led by Jake Robinson's 12 per game. Big game against Clemson on December 22, then it's conference play.

5) Missouri State (9-0) - You are wondering probably "Why is an undefeated Missouri Valley team only ranked fifth in these rankings?" Well, just like Illinois State (who didn't even make Honorable Mention status after losing their first game to Niagara), Missouri State has played most of its games at home, often against cupcakes. Yes, they beat Auburn and Air Force. But both were at home. Yes, they have a win at UALR, but the Trojans at 4-6 are nowhere near as good as last year. Let's see how they do in their next three games - all road games; at Saint Louis, Arkansas, then Evansville. I do like their forward Kyle Weems, an underrated post player who can also shoot the three.

6) St Mary's (7-1) - Only a two point home loss to Vandy keeps the Gaels from being undefeated. Nice road wins at Utah State (where the Gaels broke the Aggies 37 game home winning streak) and Oregon help the cause. Despite the loss of Wayne Hunter, St Mary's still rolls thanks to one of the best big men in the Mid Majors, Omar "Enter the Sandman" Samhan, a walking double double machine. I'll be watching that first game against Northeastern on December 22 on ESPNU at the first round of the Diamond Head Classic (a potential game vs. UNLV awaits). Who needs Patty Mills?! Ok, he would have helped!

7) William and Mary (6-2) - The Mary in the Baker's Dozen!!!! Well, when you are first in the CAA in scoring offense, three point field goal percentage and my favorite stat, assist to turnover ratio, chances are you might be legit. Big home wins vs. Richmond and VCU make a stronger case that the Tribe are legit. But the road win over Wake Forest (who won at Gonzaga) screams "LEGIT!" Only losses are single digit loss at UConn and a heartbreaking buzzer beater at fellow Baker's Dozen member Harvard. Tony Shaver has taken a team that was considered bottom fodder in the CAA by the coaches and me, and put them on the map. Road games vs. Radford and Maryland before big conference road game at Hofstra will either reinforce the "LEGIT" label or make the Mary the midnight pumpkin.

8) Harvard (7-2) - The Crimson! Maybe three is a charm for Tommy Amaker. After the Seton Hall and Michigan jobs, Amaker resurrected himself at Harvard. Wins over the Mary (granted, it was a Jeremy Lin three pointer at the buzzer that gave Harvard the home win) and Boston College are downright impressive. And also a six point loss to UConn is nothing to be ashamed of. The loss to Army, well, the Cadets are 7-2. Lin has been a force, averaging 18.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game (that's Charles Jenkinsesque!). Another test comes up on December 23 at Georgetown.

9) VCU (6-2) - No Maynor, no problem so far for the Rams. Only two losses were at Western Michigan (eh) and the one point loss at the Mary. Wins include impressive home victories over a ranked Oklahoma team (and the Sooners have righted their ship winning over Arizona and Utah) and Richmond. Larry Sanders has been Larry Sanders (averaging 13 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks per game). But the key has been the Rams depth. VCU has nine players who average about 10 minutes or more per game. TJ Gwynn (49 percent) and Ed Nixon (48 percent) have been outstanding off the bench for the Rams. With Terrance Saintil back and Wake Forest transfer Jamie Skeen now available, the Rams could be eleven deep. Uh oh.

10) Portland (6-3)- The good - Wins over UCLA and Minnesota in the 76 Classic. The bad- Losing at home to Portland State, blown out by Idaho. We'll give them a pass on West Virginia. They are a terrific shooting team, shooting 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. Nik Raivio is their leading scorer, but it's Luke Sikma that I love. Averaging 24 minutes per game, Sikma averages 7 points and nearly 8 rebounds per game while shooting 62 percent from the field. Definitely like his dad, Jack. A couple of big road games loom - at Washington, then at Nevada, before conference play starts.

11) Murray State (8-2) - There are some things I don't understand about Lunardi's Bracketology bracket today. Both Murray State and Austin Peay are 2-0 in the OVC. The Racers have one loss (a close game at Cal) while the Governors have four losses. I'll take the Racers over the Governors for now. Most impressive stat - the Racers' average scoring margin is 21 points. Second most impressive stat, nearly 13 steals per game. Thus why teams only average 58 points per game against Murray State. They would have been higher had it not been for the loss to honorable mention Louisiana Tech.

12) Green Bay (9-3) - Definitely an interesting lot. Defeats Wisconsin at home, but loses at home to Long Beach State. Loss to UAB is ok, but as much as I like Oakland, the Phoenix should not be losing to them by 24, even if the game is on the road. Rahmon Fletcher might be the best player in the Horizon that's not on Butler. Still, if they want to be the team to win the Horizon come March, they need to be more consistent. A good way to start, the New Year's eve game at Butler. Happy New Year!

13) Cornell (7-2) - The Big Red have been very solid. Road wins at Alabama and UMass. Sweeping the Legends Classic by beating Toledo, Vermont, and Drexel on the Dragons home court. Home win over St Joe's. Only two losses are to two Big East teams, Seton Hall and Syracuse. Pretty respectable. Ryan Wittman leads four scorers in double figures for the Big Red. Up next, it's Davidson at the Holiday Festival (followed by either St John's or Hofstra). Then a January 6th game at Kansas. The January 30th game vs. Harvard could be for first place in the Ivy.

Honorable Mentions -

Louisiana Tech (9-2) - Yes, they have the win tonight over Murray State, but it's a home win. Both losses were bad ones (at Arizona by 16 and at New Mexico by 29). First two conference games, vs Nevada and Utah State, both at home, will tell if the Bulldogs are pretenders or contenders.

Wichita State (9-1) - The Shockers are 9-1. Yet Northern Iowa and Missouri State get all the love. Perhaps it's Wichita State's relatively soft schedule - a loss to Pitt and a win vs. 3-7 Iowa are really the only standouts. The game against #20 Texas Tech on December 19 is big.

Siena (6-4) - They'll be back in the countdown soon enough. See Sunday's article for details on those four losses. With Clarence Jackson, Edwin Ubiles, Ronald Moore, Ryan Rossiter and company, they will be just fine.

Niagara (7-4) - Knocked off Illinois State on the Redbirds' home court hopefully signifies the return of the Purple Eagles. Bad losses at Akron and home to Buffalo (ugh).

Western Kentucky (5-3) - Another team probably on its way back soon into the Baker's Dozen. Lost on their home court to Indiana State, then back to back losses at LSU and South Carolina. However, the win over #24 Vandy was their third in a row. A.J. Slaughter is the best player in the Sun Belt.

Just to note Lunardi's first Bracketology listing of the year has eight of my Baker's Dozen members (Northern Iowa, Gonzaga, Butler, Missouri State, St Mary's, William and Mary, Green Bay and Cornell), along with one honorable mention (Niagara).

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