Not that often in Division III do we get a chance to see a number of different teams in the same gymnasium in the course of one weekend – outside of the NCAA Tournament. This past weekend the Hoopsville National Invitational Classic gave many of us the chance to not only see eight very different programs each play two games, we got to see three ranked teams and a fourth who should be play against one another.
So with that in mind, I thought I would give you my take on the weekend. Not how the weekend went, but the teams that took part and I have ranked them from bottom to top.
Franciscan – I hate to say anyone was the worst team over the weekend, so I won’t. However, Franciscan was one of two teams that came out of the Hoopsville Classic 0-2. But to be fair, the Barons shouldn’t hang their heads… this was a good test for what is practically a brand new program. Don’t forget that Franciscan only returned three players from last year’s 0-25 squad – that means there isn’t much memory of it. They are made up of mainly freshmen and sophomores who have plenty of talent and will only improve with more playing time and experience especially when they test themselves to tough competition like they saw at Stevenson University and beforehand with Bethany (W.Va.). And while the Barons lost their games to Stevenson and Gallaudet by an average of 14-plus points, they were playing with at least four players not eligible until Dec. 15 including two players that could jump-start their offense. Coach John Lamanna has a good squad and as soon as he and the team get more of a base to their program, they will succeed.
Gallaudet – It is tough for any program to expect to succeed after a major coaching change in the offseason and losing plenty of talent that had provided the best seasons in program history, but Gallaudet has been here before. They seem to always be in this place. After all, the deaf institution already has the disadvantage of a narrower recruiting field then most schools. However, the Bison often seem to find talent who turn coaches’ heads when they seem them play (anyone remember Ronda Jo Miller?). This year Gallaudet has a couple of players we could be talking about down the road: Danny Kelly (listed as a center but can play guard), Layton Seeber, Jocus Houston, and Orion Palmer just to name a few. They along with two of their teammates scored in double-figures in their game against Franciscan – but that is the offense. On defense, I have always been impressed with the discipline especially in a zone look. This weekend the Bison once again showed they will hold high-scoring squads below their average with smart defense which causes turnovers and forces bad shots. The challenge for the Bison will be the fact that Seeber, Kelly, and Houston are seniors and the squad does have a new coach Brendan Stern who certainly is familiar with the program, but still has to get used to coaching this squad. Gallaudet may have never been to the NCAA tournament, but they have a squad that could contend for a conference title and maybe get that automatic bid this season.
Mass-Boston – Talk about a sleeper in the Little East Conference. I am not saying they are going to win the conference with the likes of Western Connecticut, Eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island College and Keene State leading the way, but they are going to spoil many a team’s day and be in the mix. Last season’s LEC Rookie of the Year Vinny DeLucia is averaging 11 points a game, but Coach Titus thinks the team’s best player won’t play until the second half of the season. And this Beacons team already has a wealth of talent besides DeLucia. Rahshjeem Benson, Carl Joseph, Jahleel Moise, and Brian Clarke have all started the season strong along with Mike Mitchell and Josh Mojica, but the team needs to mature a bit more. They had a chance to win the game against Stevenson if one player whose basket at the end cut the deficit to one with 1.4 on the clock decided to find his man defensively first and not pound his chest after a half-dunk. His man got the in-bounded ball and had to be fouled before the clock ran out.
This squad has just two seniors. Don’t be surprised if they are playing spoiler this year and maybe battling for a conference title next season.
Stevenson – The host school certainly represented themselves well winning their two games against Gallaudet and Mass-Boston and starting 2-0 for the first time since 2005.
This Mustangs squad certainly has talent. Their center is a 6-6 senior named Andrew Bishop who helped spark comebacks several times over the weekend. You aren’t overly impressed with his presence inside, but certainly appreciate his drive and abilities when he comes up with big shots and solid defense. You then have Brett Burrier who is a 6-6 senior forward who is the perfect three-man who can not only hit shots inside, but can step back and hit big three point shots when needed. And that still leaves guys like Kelly Davis and Stefon McCray who are both juniors and are contributing on both ends of the court.
Now, while the Mustangs started the season 2-0, they are playing in the MAC Commonwealth for the first time and that will mean tough competition from the likes of Messiah, Widener, Lebanon Valley, Elizabethtown, Albright, Alvernia and others. While I don’t see Stevenson fighting for a conference title this year, Stewart at least has his squad moving in the right direction as he starts his second season.
Randolph-Macon – this is where things will be odd to say the least… I have the Yellow Jackets as the fourth best squad of the weekend and despite starting the season 0-3… they are arguably a Top 25 team. I can already imagine some of you saying “WHAT?!” The answer is yes because they have tons of talent which will once again put them right into the mix in the always tough ODAC which I could see on paper getting four teams into the NCAA tournament this season.
It isn’t like RMC got all that easy a start to the season with a loss on the road to Christopher Newport (getting votes in the Top 25) on Thursday and then having to play No. 16 Transylvania on Saturday and No. 19 St. Mary’s on Sunday. In none of those games was RMC beaten by a more talented team… they were beaten mainly by themselves. In the first three games they have averaged 18 turnovers – nearly four more than their opponents; the Yellow Jackets are shooting .558 from the free throw line; are a paltry 19-70 from the three-point line; are being out rebounded by nearly two boards a game; and are being outscored by 17 in the second half of their games. But ask many of the coaches at the Hoopsville National Invitational Classic and they will say Randolph-Macon probably had the most talent of any of the teams there.
So they may fall out of the Top 25 after this start, but they will be back in the poll later this season.
St. Mary’s (Md.) – The Seahawks are always ready for the start of the season and Coach Harney always has them playing tough opponents, but St. Mary’s didn’t look completely ready to start the season. Their first game featured a big lead to start, only to then have Catholic go on a 43-13 run and nearly run the Seahawks out of the building.
St. Mary’s has a lot of talent, but they are still finding themselves. This is probably a different squad if Chris McAuley didn’t have aspirations to play in Division I and left over the summer to pursue them. Instead the Seahawks have to, well, MacGyver what they can in the post with MacGyver Biniak. Biniak is a good player, but the usual double-teams down low on Seahawks post players the last few seasons won’t happen and that means less guys open on the perimeter including senior forward Jeff Haus who has made a killing on the weak side when his player sags in to help in the post.
Team leader Devin Spencer doesn’t seem to be the same player as in years past and James Davenport may be back after he was lost for an entire season due to injury, but he looks like he has lost a season. The bright spot for the Seahawks will be Nick LaGuerre who as a sophomore is already leading the team in scoring. He will take some pressure off of Spencer in both ball handling and shooting and steps up the defense.
St. Mary’s will once again battle for a CAC title and another NCAA tournament berth, but how good they will be this year will depend on whether they don’t rest on their laurels and find a way to adjust what has worked in the past and find what will instead work this season.
Transylvania – The Pioneers did not start the season they way they had hoped. In fact, before Saturday’s game against Randolph-Macon, Transylvania had lost three in a row dating to last season. Catholic simply made the Pioneers look pedestrian on Friday night, but they fought back to beat a scrambling RMC squad on Saturday. However, they are clearly missing their floor general, Tate Cox.
Last season, Cox averaged nine points a game and had a turnover to assist margin of 1.6 to 1 on a squad that lead the nation in the least number of turnovers. Flash forward to this season and the team’s 10.1 turnovers per game from 2011 has blossomed to 14.7 and only in the game against RMC did they have less turnovers than their opponent (RMC had 22). Cox brings a level of confidence and calm on the offensive end this Transylvania team needs, despite the best efforts of Nick Fudge. However, when Cox returns from injury is mainly up to him.
It isn’t to say that Transylvania’s problems are only because they miss Cox on the floor. Ethan Spurlin is banged up and Brandon Rash has struggled this season – despite a very good game against St. Mary’s. They have some young talent like Parker Stansberry who will contribute, but they need others to step up. Coach Brian Lane has already said this is the team’s team… especially the seniors. He is a good coach that can make good adjustments, but the onus is on the seniors to prove they deserve to be recognized in the Top 25.
Personally, they are a Top 25 team with plenty of talent that probably has to get used to missing the two players who graduated from last year’s squad. While Chris Owen and Ashley Hatfield may not have garnered the attention for their production on the court, their leadership off the court clearly is missed and now Spurlin, Rash, Cox and others have to step up into that role and when they do, the Pioneers could be tough to stop.
Catholic – Almost every coach, assistant coach, or fan who watched Catholic play this past weekend pretty much said one thing, “these guys are GOOD!” Tough to argue with that.
I will admit I had the Cardinals in my Top 40 as I worked on my preseason Top 25 ballot… but I had too many question marks to place them in what was my last version of my ballot (there were many versions some of which Catholic did appear in the 20-25 range). The biggest was the fact Catholic, which even coach Steve Howes has admitted, kept falling short of expectations. Whether it was a stretch in the middle of conference play or simply not winning games they should have, the Cardinals have been somewhat disappointing for several seasons in a row – they haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2007! Would they finally get over the hump? The other question was whether losing sophomore guard Billy Donovan who was coming along nicely as a player with the likes of Shawn Holmes, Nate Koenig, and Chris Kearney would once again leave Catholic with a disappointing season. The answer to both: no.
Catholic is going to be a tough opponent in the Mid-Atlantic and Landmark Conference this season. Shawn Holmes could be an All-American candidate along with Kearney who both left the weekend averaging nearly 20 points a game – against Top 25 teams! Defensively the Cardinals held Transylvania and St. Mary’s to an average of 46.5 points and forced 35 total turnovers (Catholic had just 14 turnovers).
I actually reserved my judgment of the Cardinals after the Transylvania game to see how they did against St. Mary’s. It wasn’t as if the Seahawks weren’t paying attention; their assistant coaches were in the stands scouting on Friday night and early in their game Saturday it looked like St. Mary’s was going to leave Catholic 1-1 for the weekend. But just like in the game against Transylvania, the Cardinals all of sudden hit some kind of switch on offense and defense and before anyone knew it a ten point deficit was gone and then shortly afterward they were up 10 points.
Catholic deserves to be in the Top 25… and deserved to have been there in the preseason. They have too much talent that seems to have come together perfectly. Of course there are still questions remaining like if they can get through the Landmark without going through another spell of bad losses and fighting just to make the four-team playoff. However, if the Cardinals play the rest of the season the way they did at Stevenson … they are going to be a team many will look at to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament come March.