By Kevin Sweeney
It’s hard to believe, but we are just a few days away from February, the final month of the regular season. Most conferences are approaching halfway through their regular season slates, and teams are gearing up for the stretch run to look for good seeding in their conference tournaments. Here’s a look at some teams moving in the right direction, and a few who are in desperate need to turn things around.
Stock Up: Illinois State
The Redbirds have now won 10 straight since a loss to San Francisco at the Diamond Head Classic, including a huge win over Wichita State earlier this month. They boast an oustanding defense that hasn’t allowed 70 points in regulation in 12 games, holding 8 of those teams under 60 points. Now 17-4, Illinois State has worked its way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble, and with the bubble being incredibly weak this season, its certainly not inconceivable that the Redbirds could find a way into the Big Dance even if they falter at “Arch Madness” in just over a month.
Stock Down: Oakland
Three weeks ago today, Oakland went on the road and beat preseason Horizon League favorites Valparaiso by 12 to move to 13-3 on the year. The Golden Grizzlies looked the part of a mid-major no powerhouse would want to see in March. Now, they face a must-win game tonight vs Green Bay to stay in contention for the Horizon League title. The defense, which was so good early in the season, has been awful of late, giving up 70 or more points in 4 straight games after doing so just 5 times all season up to that point. Simply put, Oakland needs to turn things around fast, or what was once a promising season will turn into a very disappointing one.
Stock Up: Siena
The first two months of Siena’s season were about as bad as they could have imagined. The Saints stumbled to a 4-11 start and lost their first 10 road games, while dealing with multiple suspensions to key players. Now, despite losing super sophomore Nico Clareth, who has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the team, the Saints are finally demonstrating the potential everyone saw to pick them second in the MAAC in the preseason. Siena has won 5 of 6 heading into tonight’s showdown with Iona in downtown Albany, and look primed to become a major challenger to Monmouth in the MAAC title race.
Stock Down: Rhode Island
Expectations were so high entering the season for the Rams, who at one point were in the AP Top 25. An NCAA Tournament berth seemed likely, if not locked up. Now, things look bleak with 3 losses in 5 games, including an 11 point loss to Richmond on Wednesday. It seems pretty clear what needs to happen for URI to turn things around: Hassan Martin must play well. In the 3 conference wins that Martin has played in, Martin has posted double figures in scoring. In the 3 conference losses, Martin has averaged just 5.7 points. The Rams need Martin to give them consistent production if they want to get back on track.
Stock Up: Towson
Towson would have seen their name next to “Stock Down” a couple weeks ago, when they had opened CAA play 0-4. Since, however, the Tigers are playing outstanding basketball, winning 5 straight to get into contention for a top 3 seed in the CAA Tournament. This is a very deep team, with 10 players averaging 10 minutes per game, that I believe could really do some damage going forward in the CAA. Their size and physicality could pose problems for UNCW, a team that lacks depth in their frontcourt.
Stock Down: BYU
Every time this BYU team seems to have turned a corner, they have an inexplicable loss. Recent losses to San Diego and Santa Clara have shown me that this team is too inconsistent to be true contenders in the WCC. While the Cougars certainly have offensive firepower, it will be difficult to beat St. Mary’s and Gonzaga on back to back days, something that appears necessary in order to win the WCC Tournament. It has been a disappointing season for the Cougars, and it looks like BYU will miss the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time in the Dave Rose Era.
Stock Up: Winthrop
The Eagles entered a 3 game stretch beginning last Thursday night against the 3 teams I believed to be their biggest competition for the Big South title: UNC-Asheville, Liberty, and Gardner-Webb. Winthrop passed the test with flying colors, winning all 3 games to take control of the Big South halfway through conference play. The Eagles have one of the most dynamic 1-2 punches in mid-major basketball in point guard Keon Johnson and forward Xavier Cooks, this looks like the year that Winthrop, after losing in the conference championship game in 3 straight seasons, finally seals the deal and reaches the NCAA Tournament.
Stock Down: Rice
Rice’s inability to win close games during conference play has plagued them, as the Owls fell to 3-5 in C-USA play with last night’s 80-72 loss to Old Dominion. All 5 conference losses have been by 10 points or less, but right now, Rice can’t seem to get over the hump. With 7 games in a row upcoming against teams with a combined winning percentage of .341 this season, the Owls must start racking up wins. If not, this season will go down as a disappointment.
Stock Up: Georgia Southern
Paced by the outstanding guard duo of Tookie Brown and Ike Smith, Georgia Southern is out to a 7-0 start in the Sun Belt and holds a two game lead over second-place UT-Arlington. The Eagles have a very navigable upcoming stretch, with no games against the league’s top 4 teams until a 2/20 matchup with UT-Arlington. By then, Georgia Southern could have the regular season conference title locked up.
Stock Down: San Diego State
As of right now, it appears that the Aztecs won’t be a factor in the Mountain West title race, something that hasn’t been the case in a long time. SDSU is just 3-4 in Mountain West play this season, with the latest loss coming at the hands of Air Force Tuesday night. The Aztecs just haven’t put it all together yet in MWC play, and their NCAA Tournament chances are very much in doubt. The good thing for SDSU is the balance (or weakness, depending on how you look at it) of the Mountain West right now. If the Aztecs can string together a long winning streak, they could get right back into the thick of things in the MWC title race.