Mid-Season College Hoops Report Card

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    Students are coming back after holiday break. Holiday Tournaments are over with. And the non-conference schedules are wrapping up. Let’s take a gander at the landscape of college basketball this first week of January, 2009.

    There are only four (make it three) undefeated teams left with the recent defeat of the Connecticut Huskies at the hands of Pittsburgh and Boston College slaying North Carolina on the Tar Heels’ home court. Sitting with 14 wins against zero losses are the Redbirds of Illinois State (until last night) and the Clemson Tigers. Undefeated Pitt and Wake Forest both have notched 13 wins.

    At the complete other end of the spectrum we have a handful of regularly-lined teams with only one win: The West Coast Conference’s Loyola Marymount, Sacramento State from the Big Sky, the Southern Conference’s UNC-Greensboro, and two teams from the Mid-American Conference, Toledo and Eastern Michigan.

    The undefeated teams are covering the point spread at a 64.9% clip while the only one-game winners are cashing tickets 28.6% of the time.

    Teams who are making supporters money at the betting window are 7-1 ATS Auburn, 12-2 Niagara, 9-2-1 California, Arkansas State at 9-2, and Illinois State with an 8-2 record against the number. Squads that are money burners for their backers are three from the Southern Conference, 1-8 ATS UNC-Greensboro, the 1-6 Paladins of Furman, and the Elon Phoenix checking in at 1-5 beating the point spread. Kent and Toledo, both at 2-8 ATS, aren’t making the MAC very proud.

    Let’s look more in detail at a few teams and what we can expect from them.

    Underachievers
    Louisville started out ranked #3 in the nation. The Cardinals lost on neutral courts to Sun Belt Conference Western Kentucky and to Minnesota. UNLV went on the road last week with their top player injured and beat Louisville. The Cards are playing very good defense but their offensive efficiency is sub-par. This is more glaring when you realize they have played a schedule full of weak defensive teams, with the exclusion of UNLV and Kentucky. Shooting 66.1% from the free-throw stripe leaves a lot of points on the court. Big man Fr. Samardo Samuels has to play more above the rim and draw more fouls. Terrence Williams has slightly improved his shooting from a miserable previous season, but he is only shooting 41.1% on 2-pointers and 29.8% on 3’s. Williams takes the most shots on the team but has a very poor offensive efficiency rating of 99.8. The starter with the best OE rating, Jerry Smith, 121.7, takes the fewest shots of any of the top seven in rotation. Last year Louisville started slowly at 5-3 but came on strong to finish at 27-9. The lack of offense has helped Louisville to a 3-7 O/U mark.

    Arizona can play like a top ten team or one that is a conference bottom feeder. They are 7-1 at home with the lone loss being by one-point to a quality UAB team. But, the Wildcats are 0-4 on the road with pathetic offensive showings in their last three away tilts. Turnovers have been a tremendous problem on the road, also. A lack of depth does not help but three high-quality starters in Nic Wise, Chase Budinger, and Jordan Hill all have high-NBA potential with Hill being a lottery pick. Zona is in the bottom ten in the nation in the ratio of three-point field goals attempted to two-pointers. When there isn’t much of a threat from outside, the defense can sag inside. What is odd is the Wildcats rank 14th in 3-point shooting at 40.0%. You would think more 3’s would be going up with such a success rate. This week’s home games against the Oregon schools will help unravel the Arizona mystery. Arizona is just 3-6 ATS as a favorite.

    Are They for Real?LSU has a gaudy 13-1 record (until last night) which is deceptive as they have only played five lined games and have played the softest schedule in the nation out of 344 D-1 schools. Besides a couple of Sun Belt teams and a Big West squad, the Tigers have played two BCS schools. They lost in their only venture away from home, a semi-away game in Houston to Texas A&M.; They beat a Washington State team by 12 points with 13 steals as they came from seven points down going on a 24-5 run to finish the game. A good test comes January 6th at Utah just five days before LSU opens conference play against division-rival Alabama. Solid play from Sr. G Garrett Temple and Fr. G Bo Spencer have led the Tigers.

    Alabama is not much higher on strength of schedule holding down a #339 rank. PG Ronald Steele is back after missing last year due to knee injuries and is regaining his confidence and getting closer to his previous form that made him one of the top pg’s in America. McDonald’s All-American 6-9 JaMychal Green is learning and improving weekly. While the Tide went to the Maui Invitational and their game against D-2 host Chaminade technically counts as an away game, Bama hasn’t played a true road game yet. Warning signs include one of the ten worst assist to field goals made ratio (means a lot of dribbling and little passing), the 209th ranked effective fg%, a 67.6% FT%, and a poor rate in allowing opponents offensive rebounds. And remember, these numbers are put up at home, or a neutral court, against a very weak schedule. Bama appears to be a team to bet against.

    The Real Deal
    How many years has Clemson started out looking like a contender until January hits and then they crumble. In 2005 they start out 9-3 then go on a 7-13 run to end the season. A 12-2 start the next year saw a 7-11 finish. The most promising was the 2007 season when Clemson went 17-0 followed by a 4-10 streak. Something woke the Tigers up as they did make it to the NIT Finals finishing second. Another 12-2 beginning last season was followed by more promise then in the preceding years, a 12-8 finish which included a one-game NIT appearance. This year’s 14-0 run doesn’t appear to be a fluke as Clemson ranks in the top 10 in offensive efficiency with three players in the top 200 in the nation. Big man Trevor Booker is greatly improved and is blocking shots and getting offensive rebounds while not getting into the same foul trouble he did last year. They open their ACC schedule at home against NC State Jan. 10 and then have an early showdown against currently undefeated Wake Forest. I’m looking for opportunities to play on Clemson.

    The Mid-Major to Watch Out For
    Illinois State is on a tear. They have just demolished two MVC title-contenders, Creighton and Evansville, and next travel to Bradley Jan. 6, a school with a very good home-court advantage. The Redbirds haven’t won in Peoria since 2002. If they win there, they have one main spot they could trip up on, playing at Drake Feb. 15, before a rematch at Creighton in their last regular season contest, Feb. 28. ISU is winning through rebounding, they’ve only been outrebounded in one game, and defense, leading the MVC in defensive FG shooting at 40.4%. They are only giving up 62.8 ppg, slightly higher than last year’s 59.3 when they ranked 11th in the country. Last year ISU was 20-1 SU when holding opponents to less that 65 points. A candidate for MVC Player of the Year, 6-3 G Osiris Eldridge is leading the team with 15.9 ppg while hitting 40.4% behind the arc. Oregon transfer 6-5 G Champ Oguchi has been superb averaging 15.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, and 1.7 apg. He is hitting 38.8% of his 3’s and 83.6% from the cha
    rity stripe and he and Eldridge are the leading scoring duo in the MVC.

    Getting Better and Dangerous
    Kansas has five new starters. Sherron Collins is having a monster season and Cole Aldrich is turning into one of the premier big men around. Stud JUCO transfer Mario Little just saw first action off of injury.

    UCLA doesn’t have the inside scoring presence as in the past but they still are playing exceptional defense ranking 11th in the nation in steal percentage. Alfred Aboya and James Keefe are doing well on the offensive boards while Michael Roll and Darren Collison can light it up with both hitting over 50% from 3-point range.

    These are just a few teams that stand out. A team’s performance in their non-conference schedule has such variables as the level of competition faced, did they improve as the season progressed, have they played many, or even any, true road games. With so many teams to wager on, it pays to differentiate between contenders and pretenders.
    Jim Kruger of Vegas Sports Authority makes another appearance.

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