DES MOINES -- We usually leave the politics to bloggers who enjoy disseminating red-or-blue opinions and sorting through 300 comments' worth of fallout (You're in league with al-Qaeda! No, you are!
), but it's been fascinating to see the caucus process
in action up close. People around here take this very, very seriously, and some folks have been sharpening their powers of persuasion on the visiting basketball journalist, preparing for the local meetings. One guy actually was able to convince me that Rudy Guiliani was a normal human being. Just for a second, though.
Mid-major basketball is a lot like the 2008 presidential election in extreme miniature. We're at just about the same point in the campaign, too. We've spent the last few months weeding through pretenders, and we're finally at the point when things count -- conference time. We'll nominate our candidates the first week of March at regional conference conventions, then we'll see who emerges as the winner on the final ballot.
And as usual, it'll be the wrong guy. Illinois State, Indiana State and Drake.
It's been a rare pleasure to see a sea change up close, too. We've had the opportunity to see all three of these teams up close and personal in the past three days, all MVC programs that haven't had the same recent success as Creighton and SIU and Wichita (to put it gently), all with new coaches and new philosophies this season. Oh yeah, and all with 2-0 Valley records.
Indiana State beat Creighton last night
, sending the Bluejays to 0-2 in conference. Terre Haute might be on the verge of some serious Tree Fever, as the Sycamores have explosive speed and athleticism and multi-dimensional scoring for the first time in years. Illinois State is 2-0 thanks to two wins in two of the absolute toughest places to play in the MVC: CU and Wichita
. Sophomore Osiris Eldridge
, with his 15 ppg and knack for timely buckets, might not wait for upperclassmanship to earn a conference POY award. And then there's Drake, 10-point winners over flailing SIU last night
for their 10th in a row
. This isn't just a bunch of 3-point bombers, this is a team with 6-1 and 6-2 guys who will run through walls for rebounds. Kinda like the Salukis were before this year.
It's like someone turned the conference upside down. James Madison.
A year ago, we said some far-fetched things on ESPN.com about the Dukes' 2007-08 chances after we saw all the transfer talent they had coming in, about how they could vault into the top half of the CAA after four years of single-digit wins. I'm not sure we really believed them ourselves, considering the rising status of the league and the AL-East like cabal up top with schools like George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion.
Well, it turns out the top of the league's been a bit soft, and JMU has put themselves in a great position to make some March magic for themselves. After a 62-61
win over defending champs VCU, the Dukes are 2-0 in the league. They are also 9-3 (most wins since 2002-03), and are hanging around the RPI top 100 for the first time in a decade. They're doing it with a relentless uptempo style, are shooting the ball great. St. Joe's transfer Abdullai Jalloh
has 15.9 ppg, but there are three other relative newcomers who are hitting double-digits as well.
Longtime readers know this, but even though the Denver Nuggets of the 1980's were the first team I really loved, uptempo squads that don't defend the basket make me nervous. The Dukes are getting a lot of turnovers off their pressure (18.2 per game), but they're getting scorched a lot in halfcourt situations, giving up 74 ppg against their 80.7 for. If this team moves that PF mark down consistently into the 60's where it was last night, watch out. All it takes is saving a little energy for stops. Dayton 83, Akron 81 (2OT).
It goes without saying that we haven't had a better Game! Of! The! Night! all season, and >last night's thriller between the Zips and Flyers
might as well go into our virtual, as-yet-non-existent G!O!T!N! H!O!F!. Back and forth they went all night, trading leads and 3's. And it ended with the basketball version of a failed onside kick, with Akron guard Nick Dials missing a free throw on purpose at the end of the second OT. Too bad he missed the rim,
because we could have gone a third.
So there's the outline, let's look at what this game means in mid-major context. First of all, Akron is a very solid squad with a solid inside-outside combo (Dials and Jeremiah Wood), and it's a real shame that they weren't able to cut their teeth on solid, even competition until Jan. 2. If they would have played a few more upper-level Horizon games, maybe a Valley team, they might have a much stronger strength of schedule, which will again hurt them if they're a borderline postseason case.
Dayton? They're good, they're nationally ranked, but I still don't know what this team is about. Senior guard Brian Roberts
is the main guy, sure, but since Christmas there's been a rapid emergence of players like sophomores Kurt Huelsman
and Marcus Johnson
. What I can't figure is the rapid decline of Chris Wright
, the 11-ppg scoring freshman who's completely disappeared in this, the Flyers' finest hour. After three early double-doubles, it's taken three games to match his average -- including an invisible 14-minute, two-point performance last night. What's going on? New Jersey Tech.
Last week over the holidays, we silently added the updated 2006-07 athletic budget numbers
to Basketball State, one of the most discussed and debated features of that site. The numbers were very illuminating, considering they contained the first Division I budgets for a few top-flight newcomers.
Like NJIT, for instance. The $6.4 million Highlanders program is actually pretty flush for an independent, coming in at No. 2
in the non-affiliated category behind Cal State Bakersfield. All that money, however, hasn't bought them a win in 2007-08.
New Jersey Tech is 0-16, and since the last time we checked in with the team in mid-December, it's finished fourth in the four-team UCF holiday tourney by losing to hosts Central Florida by 32
and indie stalwart Texas-Pan American by 15.
Last night, the Highlanders rang in the new year by losing to Navy by 29
. NJIT is in the bottom three nationally in field goal percentage, free throws, turnovers, and allows opponents to make 42.8 percent of their 3-pointers. They're, ummm, not very good.
And they have the opportunity to make history. Should they lose the rest of their games
, they will be the first school ever to go 0-29, passing the 0-28 mark of Savannah State several years back. Next up: Penn on Saturday.
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