February 13, 2008 10:24 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- We've been promising this for a few days before getting sidetracked with actual news, but we have a winner in our "Hunan: Return of the Phoenix" contest, which challenged you to come up with a movie to fit an existing title. Our champion is Tom from Omaha, who submitted a totally believable synopsis of a film that combines Creighton basketball, goofiness and fantastic historical film references.
P'Allen Stinnett (the P stands for Phoenix) is an expert in the ways of shaolin hoops, who is recruited by a large midwestern college to infiltrate a secret organization called "The Valley" by participating in a tournament. Along the way, he meets Dane "The Dragon" Watts and Booker "Fu" Woodfox, who also have skills in the ways of the ball. Then it turns out that the tournament is rigged against them, and there are some awesome fight scenes with referees. The end of the movie is a dunk contest in a hall of mirrors with the evil conference overlord, and our hero wins by using "Hunan," which is a way of dunking with your mind.
I can totally see Doug Elgin as a kung-fu movie villain. So Tom wins a real-life stuffed Bally, and we're looking forward to some snapshots of the li'l orange dude from the Qwest Center. Furthermore, we'll be announcing the winner of our LOLBally contest later in the week, and you can sneak your submission in under the deadline if it's good. No rules, man.
Kent State. Look at the current crop of mid-major schools that the power conference-centric press and poll voters are fawning over, check their performance over the past decade. Saint Mary's was a three-win school just seven years ago. Butler had a couple down years in 2004 and 2005. Davidson's had its ups and downs. It goes to show how difficult it is to maintain consistency at this level, with sporadic recruiting success, good head coaches moving up the ladder when the higher levels come calling, and the general financial restrictions these programs all face.
With last night's 79-66 win over Eastern Michigan, Kent State clinched its 10th straight season with 20 or more wins. Three coaches (Gary Waters, Stan Heath and now Jim Christian) have kept the streak going -- every single year, the Golden Flashes put themselves in position to contend for the NCAA Tournament, and have broken through to the Big Bracket four times in those nine previous seasons (including, of course, that Elite 8 run of 2002).
But it's not as if Kent just started playing basketball 10 years ago -- before the string of 20-win seasons, there was a long line of .500 and below campaigns. Coach Waters, who's at Cleveland State now, led the team to those first three 20-win seasons starting in 1998-99. I asked him last week about that transition period from mediocrity to excellence.
"I thought a foundation was built at Kent," he said. "What do I mean by that? The infrastructure of a program. When you as a coach take over a program, you don't want to have to worry about building, you want to just coach basketball. I'm talking about academic advisors, strength coaches, support systems, all of that. They had none of that when I came. Back then, we structured that program like a high-major program, and they've had two excellent coaches since."
Akron. Across town, the Zips are hurting, mostly because of the knee injury to Jeremiah Wood that will keep their key big man on ice for at least four weeks. The record is starting to suffer as well -- since and including the game in which Wood went down, Akron is 1-2, including a split with the West division basement boys.
Last night, Akron gave Northern Illinois its first road win of the season by a 88-78 count. It cut off the fifth-longest home winning streak in the nation at 22 games, and featured 65 percent Huskie shooting. All around, it's just a bad sign for the Zips, who are now 7-3 and sinking in the MAC East. A first-round bye to the tourney is likely to slip from their grasp in the coming weeks (the top four teams get one), it's just a matter of holding on from here on out.
Winthrop. We'd figured the Big South handover was complete two weeks ago when the Eagles lost at first-place UNC Asheville by 15, but there's no question that the longtime kings of the conference aren't rolling over. WU went into Liberty last night and doused the Flames, 59-50, which is something that UNCA couldn't do last weekend. Along with that eight-point Hunan-style vengeance against High Point on Saturday, Winthrop is 7-3 and in second place.
Consider this defense: Winthrop is allowing 54.2 points in conference games, which is nearly seven points fewer than its nearest competitor. UNCA was the only team to score 70 on WU, and was the only team to shoot better than 46 percent. The Eagles are forcing a league-high 17 turnovers a game, and forcing coughups on 26 percent of opponent possessions. The return game against UNCA comes on Mar. 1, and if you have SportSouth on your teevee, you can watch it.
Independents! We've talked a little about Texas-Pan American this year, we've even had a Bronc as MMBOW. But the most exciting thing is that they're winning basketball games. UTPA is 16-13, and have won nine of its last 12. And they're hanging in on the road as well, which is usually death for teams without conference homes. The Broncs are 4-6 away from Edinburg, just one away from their 2001-02 road win total. That was the year they went 21-10.
Another name you might remember from years past is Utah Valley State, winners of 22 games last season. The Wolverines got off to a bad start in 2007-08, dropping five in a row during December and taking an additional four-game line of L's in a tough road stretch last month. But the team has rebounded with six straight wins to climb to a 12-13 record. Ryan Toolson, the engine of last year's success, is still there -- he's averaging 23.7 ppg (7th best in the country), and dropped 38 on Chicago State last weekend in a 99-89 win. And he's only a junior, so Dick Hunsaker's boys will likely be ripping it up in the independent ranks next season as well.
And there's also...
How 'Bout™ the mighty Terriers of Boston University? After a few key injuries, they barely survived nonconference with a 3-9 start, then lost five of their first seven America East games. But they're back, baby... four straight wins have brought them above .500 in the league, including a convincing 79-53 drubbing of ring-a-ding Binghamton. Highly tooted (and touted) 6-5 freshman John Holland broke through with a 25-point performance, his first really outstanding game in his collegiate career.
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