There is one thing I can already determine from just the first few weeks of the 2016-17 season… parity has not gone anywhere. If anything, it has gotten more engrained.
No, this is not shocking. I pretty much expected another year of parity on the men’s side of Division III basketball, but something I think many are starting to get used to is seeing top teams taking losses early in the season.
Ryan Scott, D3hoops.com’s new Around the Nation’s columnist, wrote an article last week talking about how much the 70% rule has changed scheduling across Division III. More and more teams are willing to not only challenge themselves by improving their schedules, but also travel to do that. Events like the Hoopsville National Invitational Classic are spurring teams to do both (yeah I know, shameless plug). All of this is adding up to one thing: far better teams are facing each other earlier in the season which adds up to many more losses especially when there are far more good teams around the country than there used to be.
What’s my point? It is going to be another very difficult year trying to figure out who the best 25 teams in the country are every week. Don’t get me wrong, I love filling out my ballot each week and taking longer look at teams than many people in Division III ever consider doing. However, sometimes I just wouldn’t mind having the chance to rubber stamp most of my selections like they can in football most weeks (side-shot at my football brethren just because I can).
Anyway, there are many who probably just want to see my ballot(s). I was far too busy to get my pre-season ballot blog written (it wasn’t going to break down my selections, anyway), so first here is my preseason ballot just for those who are curious:
1 – Babson
2 – Christopher Newport
3 – Ohio Wesleyan
4 – Amherst
5 – St. Norbert
6 – Tufts
7 – Wooster
8 – John Carroll
9 – North Central (Ill.)
10 – Emory
11 – St. Thomas
12 – Whitworth
13 – Whitman
14 – Benedictine
15 – Alma
16 – Marietta
17 – Hope
18 – Skidmore
19 – Oswego State
20 – Hardin-Simmons
21 – New Jersey City
22 – Salisbury
23 – Virginia Wesleyan
24 – Lynchburg
25 – Rochester
Before you ask: yes, there were a number of schools I considered. Yes, it was very difficult. Yes, I am fully aware before the season started I may have misjudged a number of teams on and off my ballot. Yes, it felt a little like a crap shoot. I did try to take a little different tactic with my preseason ballot and not take nearly as much time. I couldn’t make the argument that spending two more hours working through details would make that large a difference in the end. Who knows, I might have a different point of view next year.
And yes, my ballot took a pounding in the opening weeks of the season. The overall D3hoops.com Preseason Top 25 had 25 losses in it. Mine: 27.
So, I got back to work and tried to weed through probably 50 teams all with varying arguments to be considered. No, I am not promising I have this figured out. Remember, I am just one voter with one train of thinking – even if that thinking is derailed from team to team. I will say this; I am not a fan of large shifts on my ballot. People may not agree with me and that is fine – not going to change my feelings about it. When I make large shifts (as you will see this week especially) I am either usually blowing up my ballot or I get uneasy. It makes me worry I am being too reactionary; like a gunshot wedding. Yeah, I understand there will be people who shake their head and say I should make drastic moves, but there are times I feel if I do I will only regret it later when the team doesn’t live up to the move up or only returns to where I would have put them anyway.
Ok… I’m rambling now. It might only make sense in my head, so let’s just get on with my ballot for this week:
1 – Babson (Unchanged)
To be blunt, the Beavers have a lot on paper that looks really good. Returning everyone from a team I feel would have been in Salem had Flannery not been injured early in the NCAA tournament. They are also compressing a third or more of their season into the first quarter and so far, living to tell about it. I know I am part of the minority right now, but I will get to that later.
2 – Marietta (Up 14)
The Pioneers are good. Damn good. I watched them dismantle Christopher Newport in a game I had been highly anticipating after hoping to have seen it last year in the national quarterfinals. They then didn’t let down against Wooster and handed them the bus keys at halftime. But no, they are not my number one team – they didn’t beat my top team and I think Babson is deeper with possibly more threats inside. That isn’t a shot against AJ Edwards who is a deserving preseason first-team All-American. However, I do think Edwards will need help as they get deep into conference play. I also hope Marietta isn’t peaking too soon, but that might be that other voice in my head who doesn’t like the fact I moved a team up 14 spots (ha!).
3 – Amherst (Up 1)
I know most voters have the purple and white number one, but I’m not there. First of all, I don’t think they get past Babson last year if Flannery is 100%. Secondly, they lost one of their most important players from last year’s squad Conner Green who could take over a game if needed. That isn’t to say Amherst isn’t very good, I just can’t buy in to the number one team right now. And nothing about their early season schedule would change my mind. Just a note of comparison: Amherst beat Anna Maria (0-5) by 11-points while shooting 51-percent while Babson beat the same Amcats by 50 while shooting 70+ percent.
4 – Tufts (Up 1)
I am a little nervous about the Jumbos being this high, but they have a really good team back from a tremendous run last season. I can’t see any reason to expect them to not have another good season with so many of the pieces from last year’s squad back, but as with most NESCAC teams I am going to have to wait a little longer until their schedule toughens up – this week.
5 – North Central (Up 4)
The Cardinals have replaced Augustana (and Elmhurst) as the top dog in the CCIW this season. North Central showed last year that they had retooled quickly and would be right back in the fray. They already started with a win over Benedictine and Alma, though that later one isn’t as great as previously expected. However, we get to see just how good NCC is this week with three straight CCIW opponents starting with Illinois Wesleyan on December 3.
6 – Christopher Newport (Down 4)
The Captains game against Marietta shocked me. I expected the game to be nip and tuck most of the way and coming down to the wire. It was over fairly early. That may be more of a sign of how good Marietta is early this season, but at the same time it might be CNU trying to readjust roles to a team that made a run to Salem last season. Most of the parts are back, but when players graduated it doesn’t matter how many return, sometimes there are growing pains. Recovering to handle Dickinson in their next game is a good sign John Krikorian’s squad got the message. But CNU will be involved in one of the more difficult conference battles in the country this year, so this promises to be a long season.
7 – Wooster (Unchanged)
Last year the Scots showed they could fly a little under the radar and still put together a heck of a season. So, expectations are probably pretty high in central Ohio. The loss to Marietta is going to sting, but the Pioneers have had their way of Wooster the last three games, so maybe it was expected. That said, the NCAC will be an interesting battle this year so Wooster needs to be on their toes in every game. This may be a year I am willing to buy in with Wooster after several years of not being sold.
8 – Whitman (Up 5)
I will be honest, I am unsure what to make of the Missionaries. They made a great run in the NCAA tournament last year including beating their arch-nemisis in Whitworth, but Eric Bridgeland’s group never seems to live up to expectations in the past. Can that change? Absolutely. Has it? Not sure, yet. I have seen years when I thought they would finally step up to the next level and they failed in front of my eyes. The start to this season at least has shown me maybe they are finally there. Their win over Texas Lutheran, granted without TLU’s best player being at his best, was far more impressive than Whitworth’s the next day. The best part: we get to see just how good they may be with their first battle with Whitworth just over a week away. Call it a must watch game for Division III fans so plan to stay up!
9 – Whitworth (Up 3)
In the preseason poll, I had the Pirates ranked ahead of Whitman despite the NCAA result last season. The past has always said Whitworth has been the better team, but maybe not this year. As good as Matt Logie’s squad has been, they just might be a step behind Whitman this year. And yes, two NWC teams in the Top 10 isn’t that far off – it isn’t that surprising on the women’s side, after all. The difference is this is the year the NWC needs to finally prove it when March rolls around.
10 – St. Norbert (Down 5)
One of the most consistent teams in the Central Region, if not the entire country, the last five years has been the Green Knights. They have torn through their conference and held their own for the most part against others in their region, despite some tough, early-round, match-ups in the NCAA tournament. But consistency along with bringing back a solid core from last year’s squad (94% or better of their scoring, rebounding, assists, etc.) should have people take notice. Of course, starting the season with a loss to UW-Eau Claire may give people pause, except the Blugolds might be the class of the WIAC this year.
11 – Hope (Up 6)
Lose a game and move up six spots? Yeah odd, I know. The loss to Cornerstone is like all results against non-Division III teams in Hope’s region – hard to truly gauge especially for those outside of the area. Hope has a good team who should be able to build on last season. They may not get much of a battle in the MIAA with Calvin and possibly Alma all being down, but John Carroll, UW-Lacrosse, Stevens Point ahead in the next three games will be a great test.
12 – St. Thomas (Down 1)
I can hear many say it, I have the Tommies too high. The defending national champions lost a lot in the off-season thanks to graduation (damn graduations in college sports LOL). However, the one thing St. Thomas has always done is reload, retool, re-whatever very, very well. They have not won 11 straight conference regular season titles for any other reason. That said, the conference has become far more difficult in the last few years as proof of the Tommies losing the conference title game to St. Olaf last year. But I am not about to just write-off St. Thomas because they lost a bunch of players. John Tauer has one major weapon back, Grant Shaeffer, and any team would love to have him on their squad.
13 – Rochester (Up 12)
First, I think the Yellow Jackets may be a sleeping giant or a dark horse this season. The second half of last season saw Rochester quietly storm through the UAA with nine straight wins including sweeping Wash U and Chicago on back-to-back weekends before they stubbed their toe on the final weekend. Rochester brought back a lot of that squad with regained confidence. Rochester very well could win the UAA this season, but that gets me to my second though – this is a large jump up the poll for me. Twelve spots based on six wins over an interesting collection of teams – none of them upper echelon teams, necessarily. Outside of St. John Fisher, Rochester doesn’t have a lot tests on their schedule before getting into the UAA schedule. They may have to stay undefeated for others to buy in.
14 – Baldwin Wallace (Unranked)
I heard a few people mention to me they liked the Yellow Jackets (is there a hive on this ballot or in Division III?) when I asked around this off season. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But wins over St. Mary’s (Md.) and New Jersey City made me take notice after Baldwin Wallace rolled through Case Western Reserve to start the season. Maybe I am jumping on this one too hard (and not others hard enough), but I like the fact BW is back in the national conversation. There is something about how they are made up that makes me think they could make some waves and keep John Carroll honest in the OAC.
15 – Salisbury (Up 7)
Here is another team I think is far more dangerous than people realize. Not only do they return most of last year’s squad who ran second to Christopher Newport in the Capital Athletic Conference and got to the second round of the NCAA tournament, but they also return one of the program’s best players who was out last season with an injury (though, one could argue who is the best player since they could have two All-Americans on the squad by the end of the season). The Sea Gulls will be part of a crazy battle this season in the CAC with CNU as well as a resurgent St. Mary’s and Mary Washington among others that could make the CAC the best conference to watch this year. Andy Sach’s squad has started the season with a win over Virginia Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, and Staten Island and will head to D3hoops.com Classic to play Ramapo and Hardin-Simmons but not before playing CNU in an early season must-watch game.
16 – New Jersey City (Up 5)
I keep hearing the Gothic Knights could potentially have the program’s best season in a long time – I am looking forward to seeing if this does indeed happen. However, they need to make sure to handle their out of conference schedule. They have already lost once to Baldwin Wallace, who I now have ranked ahead of them. Considering they may take some lumps in the NJAC (as the conference likes to eat it’s young), NJCU has got to focus on the last few games of their out-of-conference schedule over the holidays. But before they get there, they run through four conference opponents starting this week.
17 – Skidmore (Up 1)
I like the Thoroughbreds. They have a terrific core back on the floor with their All-American talent, Aldin Medunjanin, back from injury, so similar to Salisbury they are in a position to have a special season. However, as Joe Burke admitted in a recent history with me on Hoopsville, this program has been knocking on the door to the next level. Remember Skidmore has first round wins the last few years and then narrow second-round losses to good squads like Johns Hopkins and Tufts at their places. This has to be the year to push through. Not sure how the conference schedule will help or hurt, so Skidmore has to remain strong and maybe even dominate teams when possible.
18 – Lynchburg (Up 6)
I realize the Hornets lost a good group from last year’s record-setting year, but I don’t think Lynchburg will fall off that much. Hillary Scott has done a very good job bringing Lynchburg back to the top of the ODAC and they have broken through. The loss to UW-Stevens Point was interesting at the Hoopsville Classic. However, I think that was more of a testament of showing off just how well UWSP can play defense when needed. Lynchburg will use that game as motivation and an example the rest of the season.
19 – Illinois Wesleyan (Unranked)
In the preseason, I wasn’t sure what to make of the Titans. I only had one team from the CCIW ranked which felt odd (though, not as odd as not having any WIAC teams), but despite the fact IWU had been picked to finish second in the conference I wasn’t sure how that translated to the Top 25. A 5-0 start with some solid wins answered some of those questions. I do wonder if the Titans are really that good in the long run, but it will be fun to see a little more green in the national conversation.
20 – Benedictine (Down 6)
The Eagles had nothing short of a magical run last year. To be the only team in all of NCAA men’s basketball to nearly go undefeated for the season was incredible, but they didn’t lose as much from that team as people thought. They also had a tough slate to start the season and had some close losses. I suspect Benedictine will remain in the national conversation this year.
21 – Keene State (Unranked)
The Owls were the surprise of the NCAA tournament last year. Under, then, interim coach Ryan Cain suddenly Keene State was in the second weekend. But does that really mean they are one of the best teams in the country? I was a bit skeptical in the pre-season. Everyone knows about the Owls now, but they started strong with wins over (depleted) Southern Vermont, Hartwick, and Springfield to name a few. No, none of them are world beaters, but Keene State has won in dominating fashion. Maybe the Northeast has a few new teams to look at outside of the NESCAC and NEWMAC.
22 – Endicott (Unranked)
Speaking of new teams in the Northeast, hello Endicott! I didn’t want to drink the Kool-Aid in the preseason, but can’t ignore the fact Gulls have done well to start the year. A narrow loss to my number-one Babson and a win over then-nationally ranked Middlebury. Couple those with how they finished the season and what they have back and Endicott looks like a fresh face to watch in New England as well. The challenge now: there aren’t a lot of games the rest of the season to truly gauge Endicott.
23 – Emory (Down 13)
I may have whiffed on a few teams in the pre-season, may have … it is still to be determined … the Yellow Jackets (seriously, is there a hive here?) may be one of them. Emory was strong last year though retooling from previous powerful teams. I thought reading the tea leaves an listening to those I trust that Emory would be right back in the conversation nationally. Maybe not. A loss to start the season against Covenant and then another to LaGrange are head scratchers. They also narrowly snuck past Guilford in double-overtime. Maybe I should have just dropped Emory, but I felt like holding on. We shall see. This wasn’t the start I expected for an out-of-conference schedule that is not as challenging as it has been in the past for Emory.
24 – Ohio Wesleyan (Down 21)
Any feel that breeze? I may have swung hard and missed on a slow-pitch softball pitch. My back might be hurting. What is going on with the Battling Bishops? When I voted they had lost two straight to Capital and Illinois Wesleyan (who dominated). As I finish writing this blog, they have now lost to Otterbein. I know Mike DeWitt likes his team this year. I liked what I saw. Three first-team NCAC players returning to a squad that got to the Sweet 16 last year and looked really, really good. Sometimes a new season doesn’t necessarily bring the same chemistry. Might need to head back to the science lab to figure this one out in Delaware, Ohio because the Battling Bishops have already used up a lot of wiggle room for any selection criteria in the first six games of the season.
25 – John Carroll (Down 17)
When Mike Moran announced this would be his last season you had to figure the squad would respond and create a magical finish for the long-time coach. Not sure this is how anyone thought the season would begin. Two-straight losses to Mt. St. Joseph’s and Hanover to start the season and now a loss to Hope (after we voted and before I was finishing this blog post). Guh. I may have swung and missed here as well. Maybe the Blue Streaks are distracted more with the future than the present. Who knows, but this is not what I expected for a squad who looked so good last year and brought back so many of those same parts.
Alma (Previously 15)
I knew the Scots had lost a few pieces from a terrific team last year, but I also knew who was back. I also knew they lost a guard who seemed to be good off the bench (Beckman) who decided to try and go to a higher division (and transferred to Hope just to go to school; not playing), but I read that as maybe a gain, not a loss (he wasn’t buying in any way since he thought he was better than Division III). But I did NOT know they had two of their most important parts suffer injuries in the pre-season and wouldn’t be back anytime soon. I wouldn’t have voted for Alma in the preseason with that information. Now four-straight losses off a single win to start the season… Alma will be playing for an automatic-bid the rest of the way.
Oswego State (Previously 19)
The SUNYAC may be one of the top three conference races to watch this season and there were many who thought the Lakers could be a special team this year. Not only did they have a lot of parts from last year’s NCAA second-weekend team returning including pre-season All-American Brian Sortino, but they got some heralded transfers. But Oswego State has stumbled once again to start a season. I need to keep this fact in mind. I haven’t seen the Lakers get through the first half of a season without stubbing their toe. I just can’t keep them in my Top 25 with losses to Nazareth and Hamilton and no significant wins. We shall see what conference play reveals.
Hardin-Simmons (Previously 20)
I like what Hardin-Simmons has in a team. Last year they struggled and I think you can make a direct correlation of their struggles to Craig Carse’s health last year. He’s back. The team is back. But they started the year 2-2. But there isn’t a coach I talk to who has watched them or seen tape who doesn’t like what they see. Going to wait for now. I’ll get to see them in person against some decent competition in Las Vegas. I’ll reevaluate then.
Virginia Wesleyan (Previous 23)
The one thing I have gotten very used to is that Dave Macedo never reloads – he constantly has parts to put into what we all consider holes. He has one of the deepest rosters in the country and he finds talent in places no one else is able. But could parity be taking a bite out of the Marlins? For a program that is routinely in the Top 25 for the past decade, they seem to struggle to dominate out of conference now. That is where parity could be playing role. It could also be an example of stronger out-of-conference scheduling. The loss to Salisbury wasn’t that bad. The loss to Emory & Henry? Not sure what to make there. There are some who think E&H is poised to appear on top of the ODAC. I am not so sure. Thus, I have knocked VWC out for now. I’ll see them on Sunday and can reevaluate before the next poll.
I apologize for the length of this post. Future blogs will be shorter as I won’t write capsules on each team. We are also discussing an idea of altering this to a video-based post, a Hoopsville vignette as it where, in the future.