By Matt Norlander
Each week I’m so impressed by the group of teams below because they’re all so good. You think this is a down year for college basketball? I don’t know — is it? At this level it’s not. All of these teams are good-to-great. All — yes, all — can win two games in March.
The more I examine the tendencies and DNAs of these teams, the more I think the Saturday and Sunday, Round of 32 games in March will have at least a third of the current Pyramid playing. Could easily be more, too. That’s a great sign for the “small guys,” who are anything but that. It was about six weeks ago when I thought there was a significant drop-off between the top three teams and the rest of the rankings. Not anymore. One through eight here is a narrow margin, and teams nine through 15 are just as smooshed together.
1. UNLV (18-3). A Sentence: Check out this cool, dotted chart on Vegas’ Mike Moser. A Statistic: UNLV is shooting 54.4 percent from two-point range — they’ve never finished so high in the past decade. The Schedule: at Boise State, Wednesday; at Air Force, Saturday.
2. Murray State (20-0). A Sentence: I may think this team will lose a game before the end of February, but I’m not stubborn enough to not vault them after reaching 20 wins, zero losses. A Statistic: And this is what speaks to how tough it is to go undefeated. The Racers have nine games left. KenPom still has them well under 50 percent (45.3) to finish the regular season without a loss. And that’s only taking into account the rest of the crummy OVC. There’s a worthy, tough, home BracketBusters game still coming, so you’d think the real percentage is somewhere around 40. The Schedule: vs. Eastern Illinois, Saturday.
|The only thing holding the Racers and head coach Steve Prohm back is apparently this tie. (AP)|
3. Creighton (18-2). A Sentence: Doug McDermott is firmly at No. 2 in our Player of the Year chase. A Statistic: There’s a correlation to Creighton’s winning I’m seeing. The Bluejays have been at the top of effective field goal percentage all season long (currently leading hoops at 59.1 percent), and they sort of have to shoot that well, because they don’t turn teams over. The 16.9 charity rate is among the bottom five percent. The Schedule: at Drake, Wednesday; vs. Bradley, Saturday.
Ron Swanson Approves
4. Saint Mary’s (19-2). A Sentence: I wonder how many coaching offers Randy Bennett will seek/get after this season. A Statistic: The Gaels have started 8-0 in conference play. The last time that happened? No, seriously, can anyone tell me? This resource doesn't seem to be available online. UPDATE! A Richard Kilwien has emailed to link me to the SMC record book, which indicates the last time the Gaels started this strong in conference was '58-'59. Yowza! The Schedule: at Loyola Marymount, Thursday; at BYU, Saturday.
5. San Diego State (17-2). A Sentence: Steve Fisher has had one hell of a career, but I bet he’d tell you this is among his most charmed, rewarding seasons. A Statistic: I have to use three. Four players average double figures; five players grab more than four rebounds per game; and only two players commit more than two turnovers per contest. The Schedule: at New Mexico, Wednesday; vs. Air Force, Saturday.
6. Harvard (16-2). A Sentence: Crimson could be just as good as any other two-loss team you see listed here. A Statistic: The Crimson play out to 61.9 possessions per game, which is the slowest of any Pyramid team (beating Saint Louis’ 62.1). The 61.9 is ranked 326th out of 345. The Schedule: at Yale, Friday; at Brown, Saturday.
|Dominique Morrison and Oral Roberts are plowing through the Summit League. (AP)|
7. Oral Roberts (18-4). A Sentence: Tearing through the Summit, when it was Oakland or South Dakota State, by most, who was expected to win the league. A Statistic: the Golden Eagles’ offense is operating a clip it never has in the KenPom era prior to this season. With an adjusted efficiency of 112.7 points per 100 possessions, ORU has become one of the most potent “mid-major” scoring teams, and it’s led by Dominique Morrison, who scores a scorching 1.26 PPP. Spicy. The Schedule: vs. South Dakota, Thursday; vs. Missouri-Kansas City, Saturday.
8. Gonzaga (16-3). A Sentence: I ask just to have you ask this to yourself. Do you think Mark Few passing on so many jobs in the past five, six years was a good thing for him? A Statistic: You can’t call the Zags soft. Their foul shots make up for almost half of their fields, a rate of 48.3, which is top-10 in the nation. The Schedule: at Portland, Thursday.
9. New Mexico (15-4). A Sentence: I’m a hopeless romantic in that I won’t just abandon ship entirely because New Mexico couldn’t beat San Diego State and UNLV in their first tries. A Statistic: I remain troubled that New Mexico doesn’t lead its conference in one major statistic right now. The Schedule: vs. Colorado State, Wednesday; vs. Texas Christian, Saturday.
10. Iona (15-4). A Sentence: Once the Pyramid’s top-rated team, Iona needs to prep for what I think is going to be a strenuous three-week stretch in the MAAC. A Statistic: Iona should chase down its third straight 20-win season, making it the first time since 1998 the Gaels have gone through straight years hitting the acclaimed benchmark. The Schedule: at Siena, Monday; at Fairfield, Friday.
10. Dayton (14-5). A Sentence: The Archie-Miller-looks-so-young jokes are coming, folks. A Statistic: But you want to know why Dayton can win like this? It’s top seven minutes-getters are juniors or seniors. The Schedule: at St. Joseph’s, Wednesday; vs. Rhode Island, Saturday.
12. Wichita State (17-3). A Sentence: I kind of hate myself for refusing to put Wichita State in the Swanson category, but I’m making it up to you by posting a Gregg Marshall feature later today. A Statistic: Marshall has been a head coach since 1997. Only once, his first year at WSU, did he have a team finish under .500. The Schedule: vs. Evansville, Wednesday; at Drake, Saturday.
13. Middle Tennessee State (19-2): A Sentence: This would be a 20-1 team if not for a three-point, double-overtime loss to Belmont in mid-November. A Statistic: You’ll often see effective field goal percentage referenced here. It’s a truer gauge of a team’s shooting than actual field goal percentage, which sometimes can get really off-balanced. Middle Tennessee State is 19-2, primarily, because opponents are shooting 42.4 percent in eFG. That’s fifth-best in the nation. The Schedule: vs. Troy, Thursday; at Vanderbilt, Saturday.
14. Temple (13-5). A Sentence: The Owls remain worthy of inclusion after not letting the outcome enter into a discussion of doubt against Maryland Saturday. A Statistic: Ramone Moore is continually playing too many minutes. He’s in the game 90 percent of the time, up from 83.7 percent last year. As a result, he’s now scoring less than a point per possession (.99; last year it was 1.05) and his effective field goal percentage has dipped from 49.9 last year to 46.1. Moore’s going to need more breathers if Temple’s going to win big in the long-term. The Schedule: at Charlotte, Wednesday; vs. St. Joseph’s, Saturday.
15. Saint Louis (15-4). A Sentence: I’ve got a funny feeling Saint Louis is spending its last week inside the Pyramid here — for the rest of the season. A Statistic: By any credible measuring system — KenPom, Sagarin, Palm, LRMC—the Billikens haven’t beaten a top-100 team since Nov. 27 (Oklahoma). The Schedule: at Xavier, Wednesday; at UMass, Saturday.
Roaming outside the Pyramid:
♦ Out this week: Just like last week, we have no changes. OK, so here’s what I’ll do. I’ll address each fringe three- or four-loss team and what it needs to do to earn inclusion next week or the week after.
♦ Southern Miss. I’m perhaps unreasonably skeptical. The tempo-free numbers don’t look good, plus this team has yet to beat a legit squad. Long way to go.
♦ Nevada. Two road conference game Ws this week are all that stand between standing on the outside and entering the tomb.
♦ Cleveland State. Not even the Horizon’s best team yet. Take control of the league first, which is a one-bid league, too.
♦ Weber State. Fairly certain the Wildcats replace Saint Louis in next week’s Pyramid, so long as they win both of their games this week.
♦ Ohio. Once a Pyramid team, now 3-2 in the mediocre MAC. May not get back if it endures one more loss.
♦ Central Florida. Donnie Jones’ team is the only one of any featured that hasn’t been able to string together a really long win streak. Can it do that going forward? Not seeing it.
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