Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This week in mid-majordom: 5 teams flying low

Mike Trimboli and the Vermont Catamounts might be more dangrous than you think. Also, "Catamounts" is one of the better nicknames out there. Kudos for that.

Even the most casual of college hoops fans is aware by now of the likes of Butler and Davidson. Those who scan the top 25 and have a decent general sense of what's going on in the word of college hoops are probably familiar with the seasons Utah St. and Siena are putting together. And those who track bracketology on a weekly basis know that teams like Northern Iowa, Buffalo, and North Dakota St. have the inside track on their respective regular season titles.

But the roster of candidates to pull this year's NCAA Tourney upsets goes far deeper than just the teams listed above; just ask the 2007-2008 San Diego Toreros, who were busy flying under just about everyone's radar right up until the point they claimed the WCC's auto-bid and took down UConn in overtime in the NCAA's round of 64. Who's this year's version? The JCCW advises you to look to the following five teams:

1. Cleveland St. At. No. 60, the Vikings have the highest Pomeroy rating of any mid-major not named Gonzaga, Butler, Davidson, Utah St., St. Mary's, or No. 59 North Dakota St. CSU doesn't shoot particularly well (particularly from downtown) but they play some of the best defense in the country--28th in defesnive efficiency according to Kenpom, thanks to the sixth-best steal percentage in D-I and a sticky interior defense that holds foes to just 43.3 percent inside the arc (30th-best). Besides, we know they've got some giant killing in them:

If the Vikings get past Butler in the Horizon tourney, the league's going to have not one but two exceedingly talented teams heading to the Tournament.

2. Niagara
We mentioned this yesterday, but it bears repeating: in Pomeroy's terms, there's basically no difference between the Purple Eagles and Siena, and even the less-enthralled BBState ratings have Niagara out in front of Buffalo, Northern Iowa, any contender from the Colonial, etc. Like Cleveland St. the Eagles aren't especially great shooters and they're terrible defensive rebounders, but they're even better thieves--second in the country in steal percentage--and thanks to rebounding 38.8 percent of their own misses (22nd in D-I) their offense rates well above-average as well. Experience won't be an issue--Niagara starts three seniors and gives major minutes to a fourth. A win over crosstown-rival Buffalo was the Purple Eagles' best nonconference victory, but their recent streak of five straight wins by 12 points or more suggests they might do that one a little better if the sneak into the NCAAs. The MAAC will still want Siena to advance (especially given the Saints' tourney success last season), but Niagara would be a fine replacement if the Saints don't survive the league tourney.

3. Vermont. Despite leading the America East, the 2008-2009 Catamounts haven't received nearly the amount of love they were getting back in the Taylor Coppenrath/Tom Brennan days, and not without reason--their best nonconference win was hapless Big 12 victim Colorado and they've had to chase the pack in AE play after starting 0-2. But Mike Lonergan's bunch isn't far off from having a much gaudier record than their 21-7 mark suggests: they've lost three different overtime games, two of them to George Mason and Maryland and the other to league rival Binghamton, and two other AE contests by a combined seven points. Thus their No. 85 Pomeroy mark, some 60 places above where 2008 champ UMBC ranked. In senior point Mike Trimboli and junior forward Marqus Blakely, the Catamounts have two guys who have both the experience and talent to hang with their power-confeence opposition. If you're looking for a team that could pull a 14-over-3 or 15-over-2 stunner, this is it.

4. Miami (OH). After entering the year as the heavy MAC favorites, the RedHawks have all but disappeared from the mid-major consciousness after going a meek 7-5 in nonconference play and losing to current league leaders Buffalo by 12 on their own court. But Pomeroy's kept the faith--Miami's still No. 66, thanks to performances like the 68-52 road beatdown of Temple, the losses to A-10 powers Xavier and Dayton by a combined 12 points, the 5-point loss to UCLA, the annihilation of solid Horizon teams Wright St. and UW-Milwaukee by a total of 42 points. The RedHawks honestly haven't been all that impressive in the worst MAC I can remember seeing--the loss ta a dreadful Central Michigan team last week looks particularly disappointing--but thanks to their game-shortening pace (318th-fastest) and dedication to cutting off the opponent's three-point line (30.6 percent, 18th-best in the country), they could still cause major problems for the wrong power-conference team if they survive the annual MAC chaos in Cleveland.

5. Liberty. Each year I like picking out a team or two that could feasibly do the unthinkable and pull off the long-awaited 16-over-1 upset. You wouldn't think a team toting five Big South losses and currently bumping along at third in the league standings would be a candidate for anything but the play-in game, but the Flames seem to save their best performances for their best opponents--please note the wins over George Mason and Virginia, the five-point loss to Clemson, the three-point loss to St. Louis. Not to mention that aside from a fluke blowout at the hands of UNC-Asheville in their second game of the year, the Flames have come razor-close to dominating the Big South; they've lost three overtime games and another one by two. Add in that the Flames have the league's best Pomeroy and BBState ratings, are a team that relies on 3's almost as much as anybody in the country (48.4 percent of their FGAs are from deep, fourth in the country), that they're led by a Curry, and that one possible 1-seed opponent isn't particularly interested in defending the three-point stripe ... and hey, stranger things have happened. Not many. But some.


jrsuicide said...

hey Jerry, did you catch that awful video of the brawl between G.W. Carver High School and Valley High? who says Alabama kids can't get their thug on?

Jerry Hinnen said...

jrs, yeah, it's been pretty unavoidable even in A2 if you keep up with Alabama news. It made Deadspin, Drudge, etc.

I don't know what to say about it, though, other than that it's really sad that so many spectators decided they might as well jump in on the action as well. The brawl between the players is one thing, but that happens every now and again, unfortunately. The reason it's a national story is because the crowd turned it into a riot scene.

Tim said...

Great job giving some love and props to five teams that deserve it. It wouldn't surprise me if Cleveland State wins the Horizon and Niagara wins the MAAC. Either team will give their first round opponent in the Big Dance fits, but for different reasons.

In the MAC, I think Kent State's more worthy of being singled out for "flying low" than are the Redhawks. Geno Ford's guys have won seven in a row.