One sleeper (in each conference) to rule them all

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Yeah, that’s a loaded title. But think about it. Every year there is a team in each conference who performs better than expected. Every year there is a team that catches us off guard and makes us feel like morons for not expecting better of them.  Every year, there is a “darkhorse” or a “sexy pick” or a “sleeper” team in each conference. Call it what you will, but there isn’t reason to believe that this will be any different in 2011-2012.

The teams listed below are poised to better than people think. Maybe it’s because they are in a conference with a lot of question marks. Maybe it’s because they can’t possibly get any worse than they were last season, and maybe it’s because it’s just time for the program to have a breakout season.

Atlantic Coast: Virginia Tech

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 6th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
With this team’s crippling addiction to “the bubble”, the Hokies could be picked dead last in the ACC, and we should still expect to talk about them on Selection Sunday. Sure Malcolm Delaney is gone, and sure this team continues to be plagued by injuries, but other than North Carolina and Duke, the conference is wide open. VaTech returns more experienced talent than any of the non-Tobacco Road ACC teams. With guys like Dorenzo Hudson, Victor Davilla and Cadarian Raines, the Hokies definitely have a shot at finishing in the top half of the ACC. The only teams that should be able to finish above the Hokies are Virginia, Miami and North Carolina State, and each of those teams have just as many, if not more, question marks than Tech.

Atlantic 10: George Washington

Preseason Ranking: 8th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 4th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Like the ACC, the Atlantic-10 features a huge drop between the top two teams and the “also-rans”. Xaiver and Temple are by far the top teams in the A10, but the jury is still out on the remaining 12 teams. George Washington has an experienced back-court in Tony Taylor and Lasan Kromah, and new head coach Mike Lonergan should be able to infuse some new life into a struggling Colonials program. To be honest, I think it’s kinda-shocking to see the Colonials picked so low in the preseason polls. The rest of the conference could be in for a rude awakening this season. Look for George Washington to contend with Saint Louis for the top “also-ran” position in the A-10.

Big East: Georgetown

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 10th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 9th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
There are a handful of questions that the Hoyas need to answer this season. Can Markel Starks have a breakout sophomore season as the starting point guard? Can Jason Clark be more than just a spot-up 3-point shooter? Can the Hoyas rely on a inexperienced, freshman-heavy front-court? I’m not sure of any of these answers, but the Hoyas have been known to exceed expectations early in the season. If they can get accelerated play from at least two of their freshman forwards, this team could creep up in the standings. Plus, the Big East has a gaping hole in the middle. On top of that, Georgetown’s Big East home-and-home draw is very weak. They play Marquette twice, Providence twice and St. John’s twice, and their only two difficult road games will be at Syracuse and at Pittsburgh.

Big Ten: Minnesota

source:

Preseason Ranking: Big-Ten does not have a preseason poll
Where We Ranked Them: 8th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Despite losing Royce White, Devoe Joseph and Colton Iverson to other schools, the Gophers still return a lot of front-court production in Trevor Mbakwe and Ralph Sampson III. Along with athletic junior Rodney Williams, the Gophers feature one of the better front-courts in the conference. The Big-10 features one really good team (Ohio State), two good teams (Wisconsin and Michigan State), and a bunch of teams trying to figure themselves out. I mean, is this REALLY the year Northwestern finally makes it to the tournament? Probably not. Illinois lost just about everybody, we still aren’t certain about what Michigan brings to the table and Purdue has to rely solely on Robbie Hummel and we know what to expect from Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska. Sure, the Gophers won’t finish ahead of Michigan State, Wisconsin or Ohio State, but is a fourth or fifth place finish really that unrealistic?

Big 12: Iowa State

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 8th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 6th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Why will they be better than expected? Have you seen how many all-conference-caliber transfers they got this off-season? Fred “The Mayor” Hoiberg did wonderful things in his first year at his Alma Mater, and with guys like Royce White, Chris Babb, Chris Allen, and Will Clyburn in his lineup, the Cyclones could be headed towards big things. ISU returns Scott Christopherson, one of the best pure shooters in the conference, and sophomore forward Melvin Ejim. I mean, the fact that I can rifle-off the name of 4-7 Cyclone players should be proof enough that big things could be on the horizon. If ISU can get freshman Naz Long cleared, don’t be surprised if this team is competing for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Colonial Athletic: Delaware

Preseason Ranking: 7th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 7th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
The Blue Hens had a promising season in 2010-2011 season, and they bring in a solid crop of young talent. The CAA is always competitive, and there doesn’t seem to be one team that is far-and-away better than everybody else. Look for Devon Saddler to take command of this team. The reigning CAA Freshman of the Year is poised for a sensational sophomore season. The teams in the CAA will beat each to a pulp, and because of this, expect to see a few teams finish out of place in the final standings, including Delaware about the No. 7 spot.

Conference USA: Alabama-Birmingham

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: C-USA does not have a preseason poll
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
This team is coached by Mike Davis, right? This team has C-USA preseason PoY Cameron Moore right? No chance the blazers finish in fifth place. In Mike Davis’ five season at UAB, only once has his team not won at least 20 games. Sure, they won’t be as good as Memphis but they aren’t that far behind Marshall, Tulsa or Central Florida. We never know what we are going to get from this conference, so it’s very possible that UAB finishes higher in the standings than we expect.

Horizon League: Green Bay

Preseason Ranking: 6th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 6th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Why? Because after Butler, this conference is up for grabs. Detroit is not going to be as good as people think, Cleveland State is without Norris Cole, and Milwaukee is still searching for conference stability. Alec Brown, the Phoenix’s 7-foot sophomore center will face little competition on the interior during Horizon League play. Green Bay might not finish in the top-three, but don’t be too surprised if they do.

Missouri Valley: Evansville

Preseason Ranking: 5th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 4th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Evansville has seemed to improve in each of the past three seasons. Last season the Aces beat a ranked-Butler team and knocked off Missouri State and Northern Iowa when both teams were fighting for conference supremacy. I’m not sure what is it about this team, but they always seem to beat good teams. Now if they can only learn to not lose to the bad teams. Like the CAA, Missouri Valley Conference teams love to beat each other up. This means that the Aces may be able to finish above teams that are better than them.

Mountain West: Wyoming

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 6th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 7th Place
Why they will be better than expected:
Why? because this conference is pretty dreadful with the exception of New Mexico. The Cowboys three best players, Afam Muojeke, JayDee Luster and USC-transfer Leonard Washington should be able to match-up with any non-New Mexico trio in the conference. This team won just four conference games last season and fired their coach in the middle of the year. Look for Larry Shyatt to keep his job the entire season and look for the Cowboys to win more than four conference games.

Pac-12: Oregon

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 5th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
Like Iowa State, this team is chalk-full of transfers. The Ducks showed a lot of promise late in the season, which included a championship in the CBI. The Pac-12 is going to be much better than in recent years, but so will Oregon. The Ducks will have a solid starting-five, and if they can get production from their bench, we could see this team hover somewhere on the outskirts of the top-25. E.J. Singler is going to have a huge year, Olu Ashaolu, Devoe Joseph and Tony Woods are all going to be instant impact transfers. Oregon starts the year off against Vanderbilt, a team with a ton of pressure to succeed this season and a big hole up front due to the suspension/injury to Festus Ezeli. The Ducks can open a lot of eyes with a season-opening victory over the Commodores.

Southeastern: Mississippi State

source: AP

Preseason Ranking: 5th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 5th Place
Why they will do better than expected:
We have to assume that Vanderbilt won’t be handle all the pressure that comes with such lofty expectations. We know Kentucky is going to be really good, but, like, Florida has literally no front-court and Alabama has literally no back-court. That all sets up nicely for Mississippi State to have a solid SEC season. Of course, all of this hinges on the performance of Renardo Sidney, and he’s anything but a sure thing right now. But if Sidney, Dee Bost and Arnett Moultrie can put it all together, Mississippi State will be much better than the 5th best team in the SEC.

Western Athletic: Hawaii

Preseason Ranking: 4th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 4th Place
Why they will be better than expected:
When Hawaii wins the WAC this season, remember that you read it here first. The Warriors feature two preseason All-WAC first-teamers, Arizona-transfer Zane Johnson and center Vander Joaquim. They also bring in the conference’s best freshman, Harlem-native Shaquille Stokes. Plus, head coach Gib Arnold is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. Did I mention that the WAC is rather weak this season? Utah State doesn’t have the horses they did last year, and while Nevada does have the best trio in the conference (Dario Hunt, Deonte Burton and Malik Story), no team has the size that Hawaii does. this is the best team Hawaii has fielded in a while and this is the weakest the WAC has been in a while as well.

West Coast Conference: Portland

Preseason Ranking: 7th Place
Where We Ranked Them: 7th Place
Why they will be better than expected:
The top-three spots in the WCC are a near-lock. So look for Portland to improve and finish atop the other WCC “also-rans”. The Pilots have shown improvement in each of the past three seasons, and have stolen a big non-con game every now and then. This season, Portland will be forced to deal with the graduation of quite a bit of talent. Nemanja Mitrovic, Eric Waterford and Luke van der Mars are going to have to do most of the heavy-lifting, but this team capable of finishing above at least two teams this season.

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You can read more of Troy’s writing at Ballinisahabit.net and follow him on Twitter at @BIAHTroyMachir.

Kansas and Kansas State end rivalry game in fight

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Kansas and Kansas State erupted into a fight on Tuesday night.

The Jayhawks were closing out an 81-60 Big 12 home win over their in-state rivals. Things got heated when the buzzer sounded.

Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa threw a punch and picked up a chair during the chaos. It’s difficult to pinpoint specific things from there. Police, security and team personnel stepped in to clear up the melee.

It’s one of the uglier incidents in recent memory for the heated Kansas state rivalry.

It’s been a wild night in college basketball. Illinois’ Alan Griffin stepped on Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic and was ejected. This is yet another bad incident that doesn’t involve basketball.

We’re definitely going to see suspensions out of this Kansas and Kansas State fight. It will depend on what the Big 12 is able to see during its investigation. The conference will try to track down as much evidence as possible to see how this started and who instigated things further.

Kansas and Kansas State have some recent history during this rivalry. Bill Self and Kansas forward Jamari Traylor had a difficult time with a court storm after Kansas State won on its home floor five years ago. But that was more of a student-related incident instead of the two teams starting a fight.

No. 3 Kansas improves to 15-3 overall and 5-1 in the Big 12 with the win. Christian Braun paced the Jayhawks with 20 points. Devon Dotson added 18 points while Udoka Azubuike had a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds.

A clearly-frustrated Kansas State dropped to 8-10 and 1-5 in the Big 12 as the rebuilding season continues.

These two teams will meet again in the Octagon of Doom on Feb. 29. The fight in the first matchup will be something to monitor as Kansas could still be fighting for a Big 12 title or No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Illinois’ Alan Griffin ejected for stepping on Purdue player

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Referees ejected Illinois’ Alan Griffin for stepping on Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic on Tuesday night. The Boilermakers were hosting No. 24 Illinois in a heated Big Ten clash. The ejection happened midway through the first half when Griffin intentionally stepped on Stefanovic.

Griffin turned to run back on defense and clearly stepped on Stefanovic while he was on the ground. Attacking the basket and not getting a call, Stefanovic was on the ground when Griffin stepped on his chest.

Before the ejection, Griffin was scoreless.

A 6-foot-5 sophomore, Griffin is a key reserve during Illinois’ resurgent season. Playing 17.9 minutes per game, Griffin is an adequate three-pointer shooter and good rebounder from the wing.

Potentially facing a suspension for his actions, Griffin’s potential absence is something to monitor.

Following an important Big Ten road win for No. 24 Illinois, head coach Brad Underwood spoke out against Griffin’s actions.

 

Walter McCarty dismissed as Evansville head coach

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Walter McCarty was fired as Evansville’s head coach on Tuesday night.

The school officially announced the decision after additional reports of alleged misconduct. On administrative leave since Dec. 26, McCarty was under investigation for Title IX violations.

Bennie Seltzer will remain interim head coach.

“While the investigation of potential Title IX violations will continue under University policies, UE has decided that, based on the facts uncovered thus far, it is necessary to terminate Mr. McCarty’s employment immediately,” the release said.

“There is no place at UE for any behavior by any University employee or student that jeopardizes the safety and security of others,”

The statement also said McCarty received “warnings last year regarding inappropriate off-court behavior with members of the campus community.”

The 45-year-old McCarty was in his second season with the Purple Aces. After an 11-21 finish in the first season, Evansville had a promising 9-4 start. Evansville made national news when the beat No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena earlier this season.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Powell vs. Pritchard vs. Howard vs. Toppin

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At this point, I do feel like we have reached a point where there is finally a top tier in the College Basketball Player of the Year race.

Myles Powell. Payton Pritchard. Markus Howard. Obi Toppin. That’s the order that I have it in, but there is a strong and legitimate argument for all four to be No. 1 on this list. I wouldn’t call any of them wrong.

This doesn’t mean that the players from outside those ranks cannot win the award — it is so wide open this year, anyone with a couple of big weeks will be in the mix — but as of this moment in time, those are the likely favorites.

Anyway, here is the definitive Player of the Year power rankings:

1. MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

Stats: 22.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 34.9 3PT%

Powell had his best week of the season last week, averaging 29.0 points — including 21.0 points in the second half — as he led the Pirates to a pair of come-from-behind wins at Butler and at Saint John’s. It took Powell a while to get to this point, as he dealt with an ankle injury and a concussion, but there is no questioning the fact that he is the leader and the go-to guy for a Seton Hall team that is currently sitting at No. 10 in the AP poll and in sole possession of first place in the Big East.

And here’s the ironic part in all of this: It took a Powell injury for Seton Hall to really find themselves as a team. They made their leap on Dec. 19th, when the Pirates beat Maryland at home without Powell in the lineup. That’s when the supporting cast found their confidence. That’s when Seton Hall became a team, not just a bunch of guys playing next to Myles Powell.

2. PAYTON PRITCHARD, Oregon

Stats: 19.5 ppg, 5.7 apg, 4.4 rpg, 41.2 3PT%

No one in college basketball has had more, or bigger, moments this season. He scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half and overtime, including 15 in the final five minutes, in a win at Michigan. He had 16 points and six assists in a come-from-behind win against Seton Hall in the Battle 4 Atlantis. He hit a number of big shots late as Oregon knocked off Memphis in November, the only game against a quality opponent that James Wiseman played. Then there was Saturday’s game at Washington, when Pritchard hit a 30-footer to tie the game and force overtime then made a pair of big shots in the extra frame, including this ridiculous game-winner:

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Payton Pritchard called game!!!!!!

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He has carried the Ducks this season. He’s the reason this team is a top ten team.

3. MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

Stats: 28.2 ppg, 2.9 apg, 43.1% 3PT, 9.8 3PAs

The numbers themselves are ridiculous.

Howard is leading the nation in scoring at 28.2 points. He’s shooting better than 43 percent from three on nearly 10 threes attempted per game. He’s doing it while posting a significantly higher offensive rating than Myles Powell and a significantly higher usage rate than Payton Pritchard.

To put his season into context, there is one other high-major player since 1992 that has made better than 42 percent of his threes while shooting more than nine threes per game: J.J. Redick during his college basketball Player of the Year season in 2005-06. Stephen Curry did the same during the 2007-08 season, when he led Davidson to within one shot of the Final Four.

Markus Howard has been the most lethal offensive weapon in college basketball, and if Marquette was a title contender this season, he’s easily be No. 1 on this list.

4. OBI TOPPIN, Dayton

Stats: 19.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 35.3% 3PT

What Obi Toppin provides for Dayton cannot be overstated. He’s putting up massive numbers this season, and he’s doing it while being the piece that makes everything Anthony Grant wants to run work so well. The breakdown below explains it all:

The thing that’s tough about placing Toppin on this list is that he is not the go-to guy for Dayton. Jalen Crutcher is going to be the player that takes and makes all of the big shots. See: Kansas, when he forced overtime, and Saint Louis, when he won the game in overtime.

But the reason Dayton is in a position to do things like take Kansas to overtime, get ranked in the top ten and have a shot at winning a national title is because of what Toppin opens up for them every possession other than the final one.

He may not have the moments we all remember, but Dayton is as good as they because of him. That matters.

5. LUKA GARZA, Iowa

Stats: 22.9 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.6 bpg

Garza has been relentless this season, and he is absolutely one of the most improved players in the country. The reason that he’s just outside the top four, for me, is because of the defensive side of the ball. I talk through that more in this piece.

6. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State

Stats: 18.1 ppg, 6.1 apg, 2.4 rpg

Winston has been really, really good this year. He has not been quite as good as expected — he was the consensus preseason college basketball player of the year — and neither has Michigan State, which hurts him a bit. I think he’ll be back in the mix by the time the season ends, particularly if the Spartans play their way back into being one of the nation’s elite teams.

7. JARED BUTLER, Baylor

Stats: 16.1 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.5 spg, 38.1% 3PT

It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the fact that the sophomore point guard is the best player on the best team in college basketball. That’s worth something in the Player of the Year race.

8. JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

Stats: 19.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 42.7% 3PT

On the plus side, Louisville once again looks like a team that can win the ACC, get to a Final Four and win a national title now that David Johnson has taken the point guard reins, and Nwora is unquestionably the best player on the roster. On the down side, he really hasn’t shown up in Louisville’s biggest games. That’s a delicate balance.

9. VERNON CAREY, Duke

Stats: 17.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.8 bpg

Carey looked like a much bigger player in this race before Duke lost two games last week in large part due to the ability to Miami and Louisville to expose Carey on the defensive end of the floor. Coach K has fixed issues like this before. We’ll see what he has up his sleeve this year.

10. MALACHI FLYNN, San Diego State

Stats: 16.5 ppg, 5.0 apg, 3.6 rpg, 40.4% 3PT

Malachi Flynn is the best player, the leader, of the only team in college basketball that remains undefeated. And the reason they are still undefeated is because of him: It was his three that allowed the Aztecs to avoid defeat at the hands of San Jose State back in December.

Three Things To Know: Shaka’s seat heats up, Baylor survives, Virginia doesn’t

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It was a slow night for college hoops on Monday, but there is still plenty to talk about after some weird results.

Here are the three things you need to know:

1. SHAKA’S SEAT IS HEATING UP

The Shaka Smart era at Texas feels like it has hit an inflection point.

On Monday night, the Longhorns went into Morgantown, W.V., and found themselves wishing Country Roads would take them home before the first half came to a close. No. 14 West Virginia, coming off of blowout loss at Kansas State on Saturday, used a 28-2 run over a 10 minute stretch in the first half to turn a 15-13 lead into a 43-15 blowout. They would go on to win 97-59.

The loss dropped Texas to 12-6 on the season and 2-4 in the Big 12. The Longhorns certainly are not out of it just yet — three of their four Big 12 losses came against teams that currently rank in the top six at KenPom — but it’s getting harder and harder to defend the situation that’s brewing in Austin. Texas has now lost four of their last six and five of their last eight. They are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the second straight season and for the third time in four years.

But perhaps the biggest concern is that the Longhorns just don’t seem to be growing as a program. Last year, while Texas ended up missing the tournament, they finished as a top 25 team on KenPom and made a run all the way to the NIT title. It’s worth noting that before the tournament started, they were already a top 30 team on KenPom; their ranking wasn’t skewed by getting hot for three weeks in a tournament no one cares about.

The problem this season is that there has been no progression. Texas has been a program under Shaka that has hung their hat on defense, but this is the worst defensive team he has had in his tenure. That becomes even more of an issue when you factor in that they cannot score. They’re 111th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, which is what happens when your offense is, essentially, a spread ball-screen into a contested three.

KenPom has Texas favored to win just three more games the rest of the season. They’re projected to finish 17-14 overall and 7-11 in the Big 12.

That’s not good.

2. NO. 1 BAYLOR SURVIVES

It looked like Baylor was going to cruise to a pretty easy win at home against Oklahoma, but the Sooners had other ideas. They hung around long enough in the second half to make things interesting late. Oklahoma hit back-to-back threes in a 40 second span to cut a 59-51 lead to 59-57 with 41 seconds left, and after Baylor couldn’t find a way to score on their next possession, Austin Reaves cut off a 3-on-1 break to flare to the corner and fire up a wide-open, go-ahead three with less than five seconds left.

He missed.

Baylor won.

And No. 1 lived to fight another day.

3. VIRGINIA LOSES AGAIN

The reigning national champions lost for the fourth time in their last five games on Monday night, this time falling at home against N.C. State, 53-51.

Like Oklahoma, Virginia had a shot to win the game at the buzzer, as N.C. State fouled up three and then missed free throws of their own at the other end. But Virginia is the 346th-best three-point shooting team in the country for a reason, and Casey Morsell missed the game-winner as time expired.

At this point, it’s getting harder to see how Virginia is going to find a way to play their way into the NCAA tournament.