December 1, 2008 11:04 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- It's the first of December. Do you know where your college basketball team is? (Arkansas State, by the way, is here in town.) More importantly, do you know what it is? So much of this right now, at this point of the season, is involved in figuring our what is real and what is trompe l'oeil.
Watching Illinois State crush UC Santa Barbara by 28 yesterday, I wondered how much of what I was seeing was the emergence of a Redbird team (7-0) with increased intensity and scoring options that could challenge for the Valley title, and how much was the Gauchos playing their third in three days. (After all, they did play UNC suprisingly tough.) We're still trying to figure out what the exact value of a win over Auburn is, what it means to upset New Mexico. And Alabama A&M, for reasons entirely their own, haven't even played another Division I team yet (the season looks dire, as they've lost both games to D-II schools).
December is one of the most fun months of our season, because it requires concentration and imagination, and the body of evidence grows every day as the results come in. The puzzle figures itself out, piece by piece, and we get to predict where the hundreds of pieces will land. Of course, a lot of people don't see it that way, and focus on other things (like holiday shopping, which I thought had all been turned over to e-robots by now). If they want college sports, they flip on a bowl game, and fall asleep.
This puzzle has a lot of broken, dysfunctional and ill-fitting pieces -- but watching these teams play is necessary, because this is process is all about elimination. And for every bunch of games between two teams destined for 20 losses or just plain mediocrity, there's usually one of these.
Red Line Upsets
Thanksgiving weekend saw a lot of small/mid/non-BCS school uprisings, 15 in total. We can't give every one the individual attention they deserve (the full list is here), but there are a couple that really stand out.
Western Kentucky 68, Louisville 54 -- Never mind the Sweet 16 berth from last year, that wasn't some sort of radar blip. The rafters at Diddle Arena show evidence of 20 NCAA bids and a quartet of Final Fours. But the history of WKU basketball has been the struggle for respect in a split state, with two dominant programs (K and L) trying to squelch the third party. So when the story is told about the Hilltoppers' defensive domination of a highly-ranked team, the question will likely be, "Why the #%*& did Pitino agree to this on an out-of-state neutral court?" In Nashville, WKU held Louisville to 27 percent from the floor overall and an abysmal 6-for-30 from 3. Even though the winning team maintained its modest 41 percent shooting average, D like that can win you any game.
Dayton 89, Marquette 75 -- Staying with the red theme, the Flyers "won" the Chicago Challenge on Saturday night. The $20 trophy they took home is worth a lot less than the prestige their two weekend wins earned them -- against Auburn of the SEC and nationally-ranked Golden Eagles of old Maguire U.. While there was no band, busloads of Flyer fans descended on northwest Chicagoland to counter the folks who drove an hour down from Milwaukee, creating a half-red, half-yellow arena that could have easily passed for a postseason situation. Despite big wins over non-BCS schools in recent years, UD hasn't Danced since 2004. For reasons we'll broach a little later, that streak will end soon.
So there have been 13 for every 100 like situations so far this season, which on average is the highest concentration of mid-major over money-conference upsets in the four years we've been tracking such things (in 2007-08, teams in conferences above the red line won against those below 89 percent of the time). The 45 that have been recorded so far have had a lot to do with Oregon State and the bottom corners of Conference USA, but those schools generally have better facilities and more bank than we do.
And despite 10 of these 45 coming against C-USA, consider this: that league is No. 10 in the conference RPI table and a combined 8-1 against the Colonial, Sun Belt and WCC, all multi-bid contending leagues. There's a lot of strength there, and not all of it comes from Memphis. So for that reason alone, celebrate these victories rather than downplay them.
They Came Close
Wichita State -- We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the weekend efforts of the Shockers and old friend of the site Gregg Marshall, who apparently took his famous microbrew Kegerator from the Big South to the Missouri Valley two summers ago. Everything that could go wrong did in an 11-20 campaign last year, but WSU is aiming for the top echelon of the Valley again. Using sweet shooting and an extended zone, the Shockers turned heads at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, an event that was set up to be all about Siena. On Friday, Wichita State roared back from a deep second-half deficit to win 72-70, but the reason why the Shockers are in this space is their valiant eight-point losses against Georgetown and Michigan State. Keep an eye on this team.
Missouri Valley vs. Horizon -- In a new, disposable, December-only feature here on GMHN, we're going to take regular looks at how various leagues at our level are stacking up against one another. After all, the scoreboard that BracketBusters conferences use in March is numbers of bids, and though NCAA wins are important, the two-, three- or four-bid tag is what follows a conference around for the next year.
And no conference is as irked about having as many bids as the SWAC last year as the Valley. A perfect storm of departed seniors, five new coaches and a magical Drake squad put the MVC back in one-bid territory for the first time since 1998. So far this season, the league is No. 9 on the conference RPI chart with a .580 non-conference winning percentage.
The Horizon, which shares an overlapping geographical footprint with the Valley, is more used to being a single-dipper, rising to two-bid status just twice in the last decade. It's taken some serious Jenga to make that happen -- witness the split titles between Wright State and Butler two seasons ago. Many schools are in the process of beefing up their basketball programs for the long haul, and the addition of Valparaiso makes future multi-bid seasons likelier, and easier as well. But rebuilding projects and disappointments have put the HL at No. 13 in RPI, with a 21-26 noncon mark.
Head-to-head so far, however, the Horizon enjoys a slight 3-2 edge. After dropping the first two meetings (Bradley over UIC and Illinois State over Wright State), the HL has won three straight. Butler has won two of those, against Drake (in a graduation-addled BracketBuster return two weekends ago) and Evansville. UIC got its revenge against the MVC by dropping Northern Iowa by seven. UNI, of course, went on to beat Auburn at the Chicago Challenge. How much is a win over the Tigers worth, anyway?
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