CHICAGO -- Coaches talk a lot about taking things away from an opponent; indeed, one of the objects of basketball is exert enough force and will as to displace identity. If the other team is slow and methodical, you might try to speed them up, or vice-versa. If there's a dynamic star who scores and rebounds a lot, the strategy will most likely be to neutralize that player, and make the opposing team rely on cogs that don't work as efficiently. Over the course of a season, the teams that win and excel are the ones that stay true to themselves the most and best. The mediocre teams are the ones that are often made uncomfortable with themselves and their abilities. At the very worst, the most miserable failures are the teams that think they're one thing, and just plain aren't. "We aren't who we thought we were." That, or a variant thereof, is something losing coaches say sometimes.
At the beginning of the season, teams are still figuring out who and what they are. Seven weeks in, identities are now very clearly defined. Every team has 10 to 15 games behind them, rows and columns of generated statistics, gigabytes of game footage. One of the key things that separates January basketball from November basketball, the checkers and the chess, is that all that fumbling towards self-awareness is over and now it's all battle tactics. As if right on cue, it's also the beginning of two months of constant conference play, those parenthetical games against familiar enemies that will shape the endgame.
Simultaneously, for whatever reason, identity became the central focus of the new calendar's first holiday, which follows the dead calendar's final drinker's night. Despite plenty of evidence that we never change, many people made midstream promises to be better in 2011 than they were in 2010. Three days in, here come all those reminders and realizations of how hard-wired and baked-in our weaknesses are. We here at The Mid-Majority hope all your 2011 New Year's resolutions come to fruition... or, at least, that you convert a higher percentage than the Other 25's Red Line Upset rate in 2010.
Horizon League: The showdown-throwdown between the most recent two champions, Butler and Cleveland State, is still five days away. The Bulldogs (10-4, 2-0) have been getting things together in late non-conference play, but the Vikings (15-1, 4-0) are straight throwing bombs all over the ex-MCC. Gary Waters' team already ran through the Wisconsin road weekend (at Milwaukee and Green Bay) in mid-December, but here they go destroying the two Chicago teams at home by an average of 21 points. Even though UIC beat Illinois earlier, the Flames are still expected to take their hits in conference (like this 83-59 one on Saturday), but Cleveland State's 73-55 Thursday result against a Loyola team that came a possession of beating Butler is a real statement-lover's statement. On the Basketball State tempo-free aerial, the Vikings don't even fit in the grid. Probably because they've scored 1.23 points per possession and given up just point-nine.
Missouri Valley: It's fairly assumed that the MVC is fighting over a single bid -- that reality has all but sunken in for everybody -- so the most fiercely-contested league in all of Hoops Nation is destined to be extra-hot this season. After one weekend of play, your three undefeateds are Wichita State, Missouri State and Creighton (all 2-0)... three teams that are fully expected to contend. Not expected: Northern Iowa, the only Valley team to put up non-conference results worth anything (Red Line wins over Iowa State, TCU, Indiana and New Mexico), is 0-2 after losing at home to Mo-State and at Southern Illinois (RPI: 221, missing their top scorer). The ageless Carlton Fay, who seems to have played for the Salukis for at least eight years, converted the game-winner with two seconds left.
Red Line Upsets
The aftershocks from 2010, the Year of the Red Line Upset, continue. During the Chat Block on Friday, the College of Charleston dumped Tennessee -- a team that became a sentimental RLU favorite in the later part of December -- by a 91-78 score. Later that night, Portland took out Utah by nine. The Utes quietly became a common RLU victim as the holidays went on, and was Red Lined a total of six times... one more than Mountain West punchline Wyoming. Perhaps by subsuming the heart of the WAC, the MWC has assumed that life-supported league's primary curse for the past decade: a football league whose basketball withers and dies.
But the weekend couldn't be complete without another dig at the ACC. Charlotte, which has played increasingly well of late, came back for the fourth straight game out of a halftime deficit and took out Georgia Tech in double overtime, 86-83. The 49ers were one of the "what's wrong with the Atlantic 14" teams in November, and are 8-6, but have six victories in their last eight games and could emerge as a spoiler in the A-14. Of course, too many spoilers in the A-14 has been a big bubble problem in that conference in recent years.
Somebody mentioned to me recently that we haven't really had a central iconic character in Season 7, or a really good nickname. How about the Rastabeast? OK, so that's a holdover, but Kenneth Faried has provided us with much basketball joy during the course of his career at Morehead State University. He was a minor character in the most recent book; as we left him in the postlude, he was flirting with an early exit after his junior year based on some conflicting mock-draft information. Now, we get to see his yearlong audition for the NBA. Recently, it's been good enough to earn him the sixth Mid-Majority Baller of the Week award.
Mr. Faried had a three-game week, and made the most of each outing. Last Tuesday, he made 10 of the 11 shots he took against Kent State for 24 points, and added 10 rebounds in the 17-point Eagle win. Kent is a decent MAC team looking to rebuild, but that's nothing compared to the rebuilding going on at Binghamton; against the Bearcats, the Rastabeast scored 23 on 9-of-14 ahooting, and grabbed 12 boards (nine on the offensive glass). But Sunday's performance was the real clincher: 20 points (10-for-14) and 13 boards -- his fifth consecutive double-double and 13th of the season -- against a Charleston team that had recently beaten Tennessee. The 69-49 final qualified as a complete annihilation of a team that looked and still looks poised to win the Southern Conference... either way, the performance looks real good for Morehead's prospects in re: winning back the Ohio Valley Conference after last year's title game heartbreak against Murray State.
For the year, he's shooting 64 percent, and has the highest rebound rate in the country (30.5 percent). It's still too early to tell what Faried's NBA future is. First of all, there might not even be an NBA in 2011-12, and the jury is perpetually out as to whether a 6-foot-8 power forward can hang at the highest level. One thing is for sure: he's going to get paid, somewhere. For now, he's the MMBOW.
Game! Of! The! Night!
Chattanooga at Austin Peay Winfield Dunn Center - Clarksville, TN 8:00 EST
Speaking of the SoCon and the OVC, here are two intriguing teams from either league that are just finishing up their non-conference games. While Chattanooga (7-7) and Austin Peay (9-6) both have mediocre overall records pocked by guarantee-game losses, both are undefeated in early league play. The Mocs have three SoCon wins against teams destined for the league's midsection (Appalachian State, Western Carolina and Elon). The Govs are a perfect 4-0 against OVC competition, including an 86-85 win over Morehead State and Kenneth Faried right before Christmas.
Chattanooga is paced by 6-foot-5 Omar Wattad, who sat around on the Georgetown bench for a couple of seasons before being lured back to his home state of Tennessee with the promise of more playing time. He's made the most of his 32 minutes per game, scoring a team-high 14.1 ppg and getting a ton of shots. But as in years past, the transfer-heavy Mocs have had trouble putting together a defense, and are allowing 1.05 points per possession. The Govs look a bit more built for the long haul, with solid defense and rebounding, but also have their own former Big Easter. TyShwan Edmonson was an afterthought in the Saint John's rotation two seasons ago, but now scores 19.5 ppg and grabs 5 rebounds per contest in his first year in Clarksville. So if anything, these two teams are case studies in the ongoing experiment of trickle-down transfers.
Chatty and Peay have already played this season, in the first leg of a mutually beneficial home-and-home staged on November 15. In that game, the Mocs came back to tie from a late seven-point deficit only to have senior backup guard Caleb Brown of the Govs nail a three-pointer with a sliver of a second left in regulation. Austin Peay won, 70-67.