By Kevin Sweeney
A loaded day in college basketball is upon us, and I decided there was no better way to start that than to answer some of your mailbag questions as we head down the stretch of college basketball season. Thanks to those of you who submitted questions and if your’s didn’t get answered send me a tweet and I will answer it in Twitter form! Here we go:
Conference USA has been absolutely awesome to watch this season. A lot of really talented teams at the top of the league have a chance to make noise if given the opportunity to, but the chances for a 2-bid CUSA will be hurt by my answer here: I believe the champ will have 3 or more losses. I just can’t see WKU, MTSU, or ODU, the league’s 3 one-loss teams, winning out until conference tournament time. Every team in the top 5 of the conference (MTSU, WKU, ODU, Marshall, UAB) will play each other at some point the rest of the season, and it would be a monumental achievement to sweep that set of games given how talented (and different stylistically) those 5 teams are.
Vermont hasn’t lost an America East game since February 8, 2016. This blog was started 5 days later. Yeah, Vermont has been THAT dominant. And despite being without superstar big man Anthony Lamb, the Catamounts’ streak may just run into the 2018-19 season. Becker is as good as any coach in the country at getting players to star in their role and putting a team together that plays to its strengths. Without Lamb, this team isn’t as talented as other top mid-majors, but I wouldn’t want to see UVM in March because I know Becker will have his team prepped and ready to go. As for his job prospects, I think UConn should absolutely give him a call if Kevin Ollie gets fired, and he’d be a slam dunk at Rhode Island if Danny Hurley were to take a bigger job this offseason. I also wouldn’t rule him out for an opening in Indiana or somewhere else in the midwest, as he has strong recruiting ties in that state.
Coaching is the biggest factor in my book. Obviously you need talent, but it’s very rare that the mid-major will have more talent than the Power 5 program. That said, from a roster construction standpoint, you need some veterans who have played a lot of basketball and know how to win. I think you need to be able to hit the 3 at a high level, but you can’t live and die by the 3 if you want to consistently win these battles. From a recruiting standpoint, you have to thrive on landing versatile kids; as many 6-3 to 6-7 athletes who can shoot and defend as you can. If you can assemble that, you then have more defensive options and the ability to create mismatches. It’s very rare to be able to gash a Power 5 school by having lots of good bigs. Spread them out, beat them in space, and trust your veterans to make plays late in games.
Full disclosure on this one for those who don’t follow me as regularly on Twitter: I am actually a student at Northwestern and have been to every home game this season except for the ones I was on break for. I even did some reporting on this exact story in the preseason for a class project.
From a pure wins-and-losses perspective, Northwestern has been perfectly fine at “home”, and their struggles away from Allstate Arena should be the story. But I think it goes beyond just wins and losses. Northwestern basketball drew an excitement from its students and a buzz across Evanston and the entire Chicagoland area last season. While excitement on campus was tempered due to the accessibility issues of Allstate Arena (about 45 minutes by student shuttle on a good day from Northwestern’s Evanston campus), it was still present early in the season. But as the season began to spiral downhill early, being able to go home to a rowdy home atmosphere and a high level of excitement and energy for every big home game would have been huge. Maybe it would have helped Northwestern get their “mojo” back, something I’ve mentioned a few times that the Wildcats have lacked this season.
That said, I don’t think Allstate Arena is the reason Scottie Lindsey regressed and became one of the most inefficient volume scorers in major conference basketball, or that the Wildcats have virtually no depth, or that they can’t defend in man-to-man against much of the Big Ten. Northwestern has shown signs of life, winning 2 in a row, but it will take a ton of work to even be in the discussion about the NCAA Tournament come March.
Staying in the Big Ten but pivoting to a team that has surprised in a good way this season, Tim Miles has done a really solid job making this Nebraska team competitive entering a year in which many thought he was a lame duck. Personally though, I don’t think that Nebraska has that strong a case for an NCAA Tournament bid. They have no Quadrant 1 wins and are very unlikely to even get a chance at one except maybe in the conference tournament. The RPI, KenPom, Haslametrics, and T-Rank all have the Huskers outside the top 50 in their rankings, and their only OOC win of note is a victory over a mediocre Boston College team, while losses to St. John’s and UCF look worse than they did at the time. The one thing in Nebraska’s favor is a favorable late schedule in the Big Ten, with 5 of their final 8 at home and none against the top 4 teams in the conference. If Nebraska can get to 12 conference wins and win at least 1 conference tournament game, they will be right in the thick of bubble talk come Selection Sunday.
The Mavericks have been a major disappointment this season, especially in conference play. Losses to CCU and Little Rock have helped anchor this team to just a 4-5 start in Sun Belt play. And while no one number tells the entire story for UTA’s struggles, we knew going into the season that this team would go as far as Kevin Hervey and Erick Neal would take it. While that senior dynamic duo has been far from bad, the margin of error is very slim with this team and without both playing excellent basketball, the Mavs are pretty average. Hervey’s shooting numbers across the board have dropped in conference play, and Neal, one of the best distributors in college basketball, is averaging under 6 assists per game in Sun Belt games after hovering around 10 apg for much of OOC play. That duo is special and will be very tough to beat in March, but right now things don’t look good for the Mavs as their “window” to Dance with Hervey and Neal still in Arlington is closing rapidly.
@MaceoBaller16 gets the last question(s) of the mailbag in. On Stanford, the big thing was getting healthy and their freshmen getting comfortable in college basketball. They’ve done just that with Dorian Pickens returning to action and Daejon Davis really stepping up lately as a freshman. Recently, they’ve just passed the eye test for me as an NCAA Tournament team, but that resume needs a ton of work after losses to 2 Big Sky schools, LBSU, and Cal. They probably need 13 or more Pac-12 wins to be in the at-large mix, and even that is tough. They will be a dangerous potential bid-thief though.
Mid-Season Mid-Major lineup is one of the most interesting questions I’ve gotten in awhile. Here’s what I’d build (these may not be the BEST at each position, but rather what pieces would fit together best).
- PG: Emmett Naar (St. Mary’s)
- SG: Kendrick Nunn (Oakland)
- SF: Jemerrio Jones (NMSU)
- PF: Nick King (MTSU)
- C: Ajdin Penava (Marshall)
- Coach: Steve Forbes (ETSU)
And finally, if I were to add a player to play with Trae Young, I’d either go with Marvin Bagley or Jevon Carter. Bagley and Young in a pick-and-roll? Watch out. And giving Oklahoma an elite perimeter defender (while also taking away his kryptonite) to go out and get stops late would be incredible.
Thanks as always for reading and enjoy a great Saturday of college basketball!