When the Big East is as deep as it is this year, it can be easy to start to become like the most detestable of college sports fans, the arrogant SEC football fan. I’m here to keep you grounded and enlighten you regarding some high-quality mid-major basketball that is taking place at a handful of schools that may have slipped under your radar.
Any college basketball fan that hasn’t been living under a rock knows that something special is brewing in Cambridge, Massachusetts. #23/#24 Harvard is the class of the Ivy League this year. After coming one defensive stop away from the conference title in last year’s tiebreaking playoff against Princeton, the Crimson is looking to exact revenge during this year’s 14-game conference slate.
They have certainly acquitted themselves well thus far, breaking onto the national scene with stifling defense in a 46-41 victory over Florida State at the Battle 4 Atlantis. A day later, the Crimson took home the trophy and a Top 25 ranking by convincingly knocking off UCF, 59-49. Since then, Harvard dropped a much-hyped contest at UConn, 67-53, before rebounding with double-digit victories over Boston University and Florida Atlantic. The Crimson are led by reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, Keith Wright, who has been a rock on the interior, shooting an efficient 58% and anchoring one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. In seven of Harvard’s eleven games, the Crimson has held its opponent to less than 55 points.
What’s even scarier? Harvard’s only remaining Top 100 opponent is St. Joe’s at home on New Year’s Eve. If they can get past the Hawks, they will have a shot at running the table, though the Ivy League’s Friday-Saturday back-to-back conference schedule makes such a feat extremely difficult. Keep an eye on Harvard come March—if they can grab a #6 seed (Lunardi has them at #7 in the most recent Bracketology), they could be a very tough out in the second round.
Long Beach State
Pittsburgh, San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina, Xavier, and Kansas State. That is an incomplete list of teams Long Beach State has gone on the road to play so far this year, and it’s why the 49ers have played, far and away, the toughest schedule in the country. And guess what? They’ve done a pretty impressive job, earning victories at Pittsburgh and on a neutral floor versus Xavier (shorthanded by suspensions), not to mention three competitive single-digit losses at San Diego State, at Kansas and at UNC.
The 49ers are led by the backcourt tandem of Casper Ware and Larry Anderson. Ware is averaging nearly 17 points per game and has played even better in big games—he dropped 28 pts and 6 assists on Pittsburgh, 26 and 6 on SDSU, and 29 and 5 on UNC. Meanwhile, Anderson is one of the most efficient guards in the nation, shooting 62% on 2-pt. FGs and 44% from beyond the arc on the year.
Heavy favorites in the Big West Conference, the 49ers are another team with a chip on its shoulder after falling just short of the NCAAs last season. Coach Dan Monson will have his squad ready for the postseason this year after this ridiculous early-season slate. They’ll be a nightmare match-up for any good, but not great major conference teams in March.
Pay attention, ‘Cuse fans, because this team has special relevance to your beloved Orange. The #20/#21 Murray State Racers are one of six undefeated teams remaining in the country. Looking at upcoming schedules, the two most likely teams to remain undefeated deep into 2012 are Syracuse and Murray State. The Ohio Valley is not the brutal Big East, so the Racers will be large favorites in every game they play for the rest of the year. Given that Murray State has taken down Memphis, Dayton (by 17), and Southern Mississippi already this season, it’s tough to not get excited about the prospects of an undefeated season for the RPI #15 Racers when the next best team in the OVC is #172 Eastern Kentucky.
Murray State is a hot-shooting team that plays tight, disruptive defense and relies on senior leadership. The Racers are knocking down 43.5% of their shots from beyond the arc, a sizzling rate that ranks them 6th in the country in launching the three ball. Meanwhile, MSU’s defense limits opponents to 27% shooting the three, while forcing a turnover more than once every four possessions.
Isaiah Canaan, a 6’0” junior guard, leads the Racers with 18.6 points per game. He’s shooting 48% from beyond the arc and is one of three Racers’ players to land in the Top 100 in D-I in True Shooting Percentage. Ivan Aska is Murray State’s big man. He leads the team in rebounding and pitches in with over 12 points per game.
If Murray State can maneuver their way through league play unscathed and win their BracketBusters game at home, they’ll enter conference tourney week at 29-0.
The Missouri Valley is stacked this year with five out of ten teams in Pomeroy’s Top 100. Year in and year out, teams from the Valley impress in the non-conference and then knock each other around for 18 games of warfare. They play a unique brand of basketball in the Valley, where schools spend roughly a sixth of their entire athletic budget on men’s hoops. The MVC was eighth in average attendance among all conferences with Creighton and Wichita State averaging over 10,000 fans per home game. Those two teams are the favorites this season, and any good college basketball fan should keep an eye on Wichita State.
The Shockers picked off a very good UNLV team 89-70 on December 4th, right after the Runnin’ Rebels took down UNC. They also knocked off Colorado in Puerto Rico, Utah State at home and Tulsa on the road. Their lone blemishes come from a 70-60 loss to Alabama and an overtime defeat at the hands of the Temple Owls.
The epitome of a balanced offense, Wichita State can score at every position. All five starters average double figures, though their leading scorers, Joe Ragland and Toure Murray, only average 12.4 ppg. The Shockers boast a deep squad, winning games through rebounding and lockdown perimeter defense. WSU is holding opponents below 27% from three-point distance, and is 6th in the country in limiting offensive rebounds.
Looking ahead to the grinding Valley schedule, the Shockers will have several more chances for quality victories and should be a strong at-large candidate if they fail to win the auto bid in the conference tournament.
Ian Halpern is the editor of Ivy Hoops Online. Visit them at http://ivyhoopsonline.com/