Pausing before the stretch run

Buffalo State struggled with Justin Mitchell out. He’s not missing any longer.
Buffalo State athletics photo

Teams have started to clinch regular season titles and the first regional rankings will be published this week. So we must officially be in the stretch run. Here’s a few points of view on the men’s and women’s basketball season so far — who has surprised, who has disappointed and who is the player of the year…so far.

    MEN

Who is the biggest surprise?
Gordon Mann: The Hope Flying Dutchmen didn’t make the preseason Top 25. In fact, they wouldn’t have made the Top 30 since they were seven slots out of the preseason poll. Now Hope is the only team left that is unbeaten against Division III opponents.
Pat Coleman: Whitworth. Losing the consensus Player of the Year from a team with an already-tight rotation, then losing the head coach, seemed like a recipe for mortality. But the Pirates have done pretty well for themselves, at 18-3 with one of the losses to a scholarship school, one to UW-Whitewater and another to rival Whitman. The addition of another transfer, Idris Lasisi, has been huge for Whitworth. (Understandable about Hope — however, since they wouldn’t provide our voters with a preseason breakdown of who was returning, we didn’t speculate.)
Dave McHugh: New York University. The Violets always seem to start their season strong, but once they enter UAA play they have struggled in recent years. After losing to Brandeis, it appeared to be deja vu, but NYU has since then only lost one more game against Carnegie Mellon at home (figure that one out!). They have beaten Chicago and Wash U. on the road and still have those teams to play in New York City. However, the big test will be the three games on the road against Emory, Rochester, and Brandeis.

Who is the biggest disappointment?
Gordon Mann: Rochester isn’t the only preseason Top 10 team to fall off the national radar. Marietta is in the same predicament. But unlike Marietta, Rochester doesn’t have a chance to save its season by winning its postseason conference tournament. The UAA awards its automatic bid to the regular season title winner and the Yellowjackets are three games out of first place with four to play.
Pat Coleman: Williams. The Ephs have struggled in the second semester. Heck, even in the first semester, a home loss to Salem State is not an indication of a stellar season. Whether it’s the back injury or the absence of Troy Whittington, James Wang is simply not the player we’ve seen on the national scene.
Dave McHugh: Marietta. The Pioneers looked poised to dominate the OAC, but instead have struggled with two loses to Ohio Northern and one against Baldwin Wallace (both behind Marietta in the standings). They have also lost to the two teams ahead of them, Capital and John Carroll, and still have to face both teams in the last two games of the season. Those five in-conference loses with potentially more could put the Pioneers in a very difficult role of a road team who needs to win the conference title to get an NCAA AQ.

What team are you buying stock in?
Gordon Mann: Wittenberg seems like a good buy on the virtual Division III basketball stock market. The Tigers sit atop a quality conference and have just three regional losses. So they are in decent position to host an NCAA tournament pod … if they can win their last four games … and the NCAC tournament. Well, stock picking is speculative, isn’t it?
Pat Coleman: Buffalo State. The Bengals dropped off the radar with back-to-back losses, one of them by 24, when Justin Mitchell (12.8 points per game) was out. They’ve bounced back to win six in a row, averaging 95.5 points per game in the process. They lost to Oswego State in December and must travel to Oswego on Feb. 17.
Dave McHugh: Transylvania. There is something about how the Pioneers are playing basketball that impresses me. They have two loses on the season to Gustavus Adolphus, who was a giant killer in Las Vegas, and Defiance, which is a head scratcher. Coach Brian Lane nearly broke his dad’s record for start to a season at 10-0 with a team that is unselfish (check out their assist numbers) and several players like Ethan Spurlin, Brandon Rash, Barrett Meyer and Tate Cox who contributing on all levels. And if they don’t get very far in the NCAA Tournament this season, get ready because pretty nearly the entire team returns next season.

Which ranked team are you not sold on?
Gordon Mann: MIT. Dominating the NEWMAC is not a precursor to national success. The NEWMAC teams have received 17 bids to the NCAA tournament since 2002 (sixth most among all conferences) and won 16 games. MIT’s own NCAA tournament record is 2-3 in the last four years with loses to DeSales, Rochester and Farmingdale State.
Pat Coleman: Hope. Clearly they’ve beaten everyone we would expect them to, though, with the only loss to D-I Western Michigan. I just am not sure who they have beaten, because they play so many non-Division III teams. It’s hard to tell what a win against Cornerstone or Mount Vernon Nazarene means. The best win on a D-III level is a one-point win against Wheaton (Ill.) on a neutral floor. That at least puts Hope on par with the best teams in the CCIW, so considering them for No. 1 is not at all a stretch. But just not sold.
Dave McHugh: Franklin and Marshall. The Diplomats have two loses in a sub-par Centennial Conference: on the road against Muhlenberg and at home against Washington College. Outside of the conference, F&M has played mostly lowly teams with just ONE game outside of the Mayser Gymnasium (Lancaster Bible) and two games against Oneonta State (2-19), though just one of those games counts in the eyes of the NCAA. In all, they are 19-2 against an opponent record of 150-164 (.478) (counting Oneonta State twice, it would be 152-183). They are having trouble playing an inside-outside game, which has made them tough in the past. It appears teams are choosing to stop either Hayk Gyokchyan or Georgio Milligan, the teams only major threats, and that seems to be working to keep games tight.

Who is your player of the year so far?
Gordon Mann: Ryan Sharry of Middlebury leads his team in scoring (20.6 per game), rebounding (10.1 per game) and blocks (32). He scores efficiently – 66.3 percent shooting from the field and 42.4 percent from behind the arc. And he has helped establish the Panthers as legit national title contenders.
Pat Coleman: Matt Johnson of Chicago. The guy’s streak of late is obviously impressive, and he has been carrying a Maroons team that would otherwise really be struggling. He’s upped his average above 20 points per game, shoots 38 percent from three-point range (with a lot of attempts) and is 88 percent from the line. But another game like Sunday’s at Rochester and I’ll be looking for someone else.
Dave McHugh: Matt Addison of Hardin-Simmons. The nation’s second leading scorer (28.0 ppg) has also made his Hardin-Simmons team much better – e.g. he missed the Cowboys’ home game against Mary Hardin-Baylor which the Cowboys’ lost in overtime. Addison is tough to stop because he can slice to the rim, stop and hit from 12 feet, and is 33rd in the nation in three-point shooting at .417. And don’t put him on the line, because he is shooting .883 which is 15th best in Division III. And we aren’t done… he has 2.6 steals/game (20th in the NCAA) and handing out 4.9 assists/game (33rd in the NCAA). He is also a difficult defender, usually taking on the opponent’s biggest threat on the outside. Oh, and he is a father of two and a Ministry major.

What is the best conference race?
Gordon Mann: MAC Freedom, though the MAC Commonwealth race is also very good. In both cases, only the top four teams make the conference playoffs and at least six are alive. On the Freedom side, it’s unlikely any team will get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, so the urgency adds to the entertainment value. Defending champion Delaware Valley won’t make the playoffs, but the Aggies can still play spoiler. Their two conference wins come against co-first place holders Wilkes and Eastern.
Pat Coleman: The NJAC North, where two strong teams will get left out of the conference playoffs, while either Kean (5-18, 4-7) or TCNJ (8-15, 2-9) will get in because of being in the NJAC South. In the NJAC North, New Jersey City (16-5, 6-4), Rutgers-Newark(13-9, 6-4), Montclair State (16-7, 6-5) and Ramapo (15-7, 6-5) are battling for two playoff spots.
Dave McHugh: I could have gone with the NCAC, UAA, or NESCAC, but the Landmark Conference has surprised me. While Scranton is up two games with three to play on Juniata and Moravian (tied for second) and three games on Catholic and Susquehanna (tied for fourth), these teams have been beating on each other all season. And then there is Merchant Marine. The Mariners have rebounded with three straight wins including games against Juniata and Catholic to put them 5-6 and one game back of a playoff spot. Who makes the four-team tournament and in what positions won’t be decided until the final game of the season. And then anything is possible for the tournament crown since anyone can beat anyone, anywhere.

    WOMEN

Who is the biggest surprise?
Gordon Mann: UW-Eau Claire and Mary Washington both qualify as pleasant surprises, but the team that made the biggest jump from preseason to now is Franklin. The Grizzlies had no votes in the preseason Top 25 and then vaulted into the first regular season poll, buoyed by a 52-47 win over preseason No. 10 DePauw.
Pat Coleman: St. Thomas. The Tommies having a team in the top 15 in our poll is not surprising, but it being the women, that’s a different story. Now, it could be said that the Tommies have lost to the best team (or only regionally prominent team) they’ve played, and that was the opener, 70-53 at UW-Stevens Point on Nov. 16.
Dave McHugh: Mary Washington. I know Deena Applebury can not only do a terrific job of coaching, but she is also a solid recruiter, but I didn’t see a 21-0 record at this point in the season. York (Pa.) is one game behind them, but already lost to the Eagles 59-42 in Fredricksburg, Vir. The Eagles have also dominated many of their other opponents while getting solid victories over teams like Christopher Newport, Ferrum, and Keene State. The Eagles are also outscoring their opponents by nearly 23 ppg with seniors Katie Wimmer and Jenna McRae leading the way, but not the team’s only threats.

Who is the biggest disappointment?
Gordon Mann: Denison. DePauw moved into the NCAC this season and instantly became the favorite over the Big Red, who were last year’s conference champions. But Denison still had high expectations coming off a 28-1 year and was ranked No. 12 in the preseason. Now, a year removed from going undefeated in the NCAC, Denison is 7-5 in conference.
Pat Coleman: Muhlenberg. Rallying from 17 down at Rochester last season put the Mules in the Sweet 16. The Mules’ standout player, Alexandra Chili, returned this year. But this year, when the Mules rallied from 17 down, it was to beat Washington College (12-9). Without that rally, Muhlenberg would have lost six of its past eight games. Five of eight isn’t much better.
Dave McHugh: I have to agree with Pat and say Muhlenberg. The Mules looked to be in control of the Centennial Conference after winning their first 12 games of the season and 7 in the conference climbing to as high as #9 in the country. But, they have stumbled badly since then. They still have time to turn it around with five games left in the season, but they have put themselves in a win-or-go-home scenario in the conference tournament.

What team are you buying stock in?
Gordon Mann: Illinois Wesleyan, and I’ve pretty much cornered this market. The Titans had 38 points in the Week 9 Top 25 poll and I account for almost a third of them because Illinois Wesleyan is No. 14 on my ballot. From what I’ve seen, they have a great scorer in Olivia Lett and good depth. They are physical enough to beat big teams and quick enough to beat small teams. On paper, only two of their losses are “bad” and even those aren’t terrible. UW-Whitewater is a quality program from an elite conference and Wheaton (Ill.) beat the Titans in double overtime.
Pat Coleman: Mount Union. Although they’re getting about as high as I feel comfortable. I’ll feel more comfortable in a couple of weeks, if they win at Ohio Northern (18-3, 12-2 OAC) and Baldwin-Wallace (14-7, 9-5).
Dave McHugh: If this was last week, I would have said Millsaps, but after losing two games this past weekend, my focus has switched to Centre. The Colonels have one blemish on their resume which was a heart-breaking OT loss to Thomas More when a jumper wouldn’t fall at the buzzer. They have beaten Millsaps and Rhodes to site 2.5 games up on their side of the SCAC while outscoring their opponents by 15. And Maggie Prewitt is leading the way with 16.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg, and 7.3 apg while shooting .460 from the floor, .385 from beyond the arc, and .890 from the charity strip… impressive.

Which ranked team are you not sold on?
Gordon Mann: Lewis and Clark has been high on my ballot all season. But after watching the Pioneers struggle late against George Fox again on Tuesday, I’m not sure what to make of them (more on the Bruins below). The Pioneers’ win over Kean is nice, but that was months ago and the Cougars were missing second leading scorer Brittany Powell. If Lewis and Clark is as good this year as they were last year, that’s still pretty good. But last year’s version of the Pioneers split its regular season series with George Fox and still ended the year without a single vote in the Final Top 25 poll. Maybe the Pios’ Top 10 ranking is too high.
Pat Coleman: Franklin. It’s hard to argue with the only team that beat DePauw. Digging into the box score reminds me that Ali Ross fouled out for DePauw at Franklin with just five points, and it’s the only time a DePauw player has fouled out all season. The Tigers shot only 33 percent from the floor and made two three-pointers. Scoring only 36 in the home loss to Manchester is a head-scratcher. The HCAC isn’t traditionally a strong Division III women’s basketball conference, and while Franklin played three MIAA teams, they were Kalamazoo, Trine and Alma, a combined 10-27 in the MIAA.
Dave McHugh: Juniata. I realize the Eagles only have one loss and they have a two-game lead on Catholic in the Landmark Conference. They also have swept Scranton, but the Lady Royals are no longer the dominating team of yester-year. However, I have seen the Eagles in action not only in person, but via video, and I have not been impressed. They can’t seem to put together a 40 minute game and even in games they seem to dominate, they tend to allow opponents to hang around just a bit too much

Who is your player of the year so far?
Gordon Mann: Hannah Munger of George Fox. Among the players I’ve seen live or on video, Calvin’s Carissa Verkaik has the most unique skill set and Amherst’s Caroline Stedman is the one I’d want most in the clutch. But Munger is the most irreplaceable to her team. Her height in the middle takes away the opponents’ inside game and her athleticism makes her tough to stop on offense. The Bruins would still be good without Munger. They are championship contenders with her.
Pat Coleman: Well, I like those players too. UW-Eau Claire center Ellen Plendl belongs in that conversation as well. Even though she only averages 12.2 points per game, the 6-5 senior also averages 10.7 rebounds and 3.9 blocked shots.
Dave McHugh: I know, this IS a strange pick, but Megan Robertson has been a major factor in Amherst’s success this season (along with Caroline Stedman). In fact, Coach G.P. Gromacki will tell you she is their biggest surprise. Robertson is a freshman who is third on the team in scoring at 10.7 ppg, first on the team in rebounding (7.4) while shooting .531 and blocking 22 shots. And while she may play a lot of time inside, she can easily switch to point guard which gives Amherst all kinds of match-up advantages.

What is the best conference race?
Gordon Mann: The WIAC has three ranked teams (Stevens Point, Eau Claire and River Falls) and two others who’ve proved they are contenders (Whitewater and La Crosse). Stevens Point leads the pack, and it split the regular season series with fifth place La Crosse. If the teams don’t beat each other up too much, this conference could put four teams in the NCAA tournament.
Pat Coleman: The Iowa Conference. Four teams are within a half-game of the lead, with Simpson and Wartburg at 9-3, Coe and Loras at 9-4. Loras has yet to travel to Wartburg and Simpson, so they have the toughest road to the top seed of the bunch. Coe also travels to Wartburg, so while Wartburg has two games against first-place contenders remaining, at least they are both at home.
Dave McHugh: While I like the WIAC and IIAC races, the USAC is intriguing. There is a three-way tie at the top between Greensboro, Christopher Newport, and Ferrum. Greensboro has beaten Christopher Newport once with one to play. Ferrum has split against Christopher Newport including a dominating 82-58 victory on Sunday and will take on Greensboro, who they already beat earlier this season, on Wednesday. The Pride are beatable, proven by the fact they lost to Ferrum and Christopher Newport in back-to-back games earlier this season, but have won 9 straight since. Who wins the regular and tournament titles is too hard to call.

Part I: 10 questions for 2010

Now that the holidays are over, maybe you’re getting into the swing of the 2009-2010 Division III basketball season. Or maybe you’ve been following the season since the mid-November tip off and are trying to make sense of the results so far. Or maybe you’re just killing time waiting for the next bowl game to begin. Whatever the case is, here are 10 burning questions for the Division III basketball season as we enter 2010.

Northeast: Is Williams ready to return to prominence?

If you’ve only been following Division III basketball since 2005, you may wonder “what prominence?” The Ephs have been a respectable 83-46 the past five years, but are just five games over .500 in the NESCAC with one NCAA tournament appearance (1st round loss to Brockport State in 2008). But go back farther and Williams came within one shot of winning consecutive national championships. This years’ team has started 10-1 with the lone loss at undefeated No. 4 Randolph-Macon 79-74. In that game the Ephs had a 16-point second half lead before the Yellow Jackets rallied. Williams’ margin of victory has been impressive but just one of those wins come over a team with a winning record. The next big test comes in a visit from current No. 11 Amherst on January 9.

My two cents: The Ephs have started fast before. Let’s see what they do in the NESCAC.

Northeast: Can Amherst win the women’s title?

Speaking of Amherst, the No. 2 Lord Jeffs are 10-0 and the only team besides current No. 1 Illinois Wesleyan receiving first place votes. Look at the results to date and it’s easy to see why. Amherst went to the national semifinals last year where their talented but small guards struggled to get on track against Washington U. and TCNJ. This year’s team has a very balanced attack where all five starters score more than seven points per game and the leading scorer is reserve post player Lem Atanga McCormick. A deep NCAA tournament run isn’t a given with the depth of the NESCAC and the region as a whole but Coach G.P. Gromacki has a knack for leading his teams on them. Circle the games at No. 4 Bowdoin on January 29 and at No. 17 Tufts on February 6th for a preview of what the postseason has in store for the Lord Jeffs.

My two cents: They have the best chance of anyone east of Ohio, but I’d still slot them behind IWU, Wash U and Hope at full strength.

Atlantic: Can Richard Stockton repeat in the NJAC?

The Ospreys started last season in the middle of a pack of teams who were “also receiving votes” in the Top 25. But they finished it in the national championship game. This season the Ospreys were ranked No. 5 in the first poll but have slid out of the rankings with three loses, two of them coming at home. Just because Richard Stockton has had a different trajectory in the polls to this point doesn’t mean this season cannot end like last season. This year’s squad is a little different. Jerome Hubbard, an outstanding long-range shooter who stretched defenses, has graduated. DiAndre Brown, a transfer who averaged 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game for Eastern Nazarene last year, has taken his place in the starting lineup. The Ospreys were picked as the overall preseason favorite in the NJAC and, despite the 0-1 start, playing in the weaker NJAC south should help them build momentum for the conference tournament. But the return of low post presence Abdoulaye Ouedraogo to William Paterson after spending a season at NAIA Georgetown (Ky.) makes the Pioneers another team to watch.

My two cents: The Ospreys win the NJAC south but fall in the tournament at home.

East: Who is the best team in the East region?

Coming into the weekend, you could have made a good case that Medaille (12-0) was the best team in the region after the Mavericks gutsy win at No. 9 John Carroll. But then Medaille squeaked by Mount Aloysius (4-5) and John Carroll got crushed by Bethany on Saturday, taking some luster off that upset. Still, there is a void atop this region. Rochester is the only team getting votes (or, to be more accurate, “vote”) in the Top 25 at 7-1. Plattsburgh has the same record pending their semester opening match-up with No. 7 Middlebury. St. John Fisher was the preseason favorite in the Empire 8 but lost to Hobart. Ithaca lost a lot to graduation but has a solid 8-2 start. Perennial Liberty League favorites St. Lawrence and Hamilton are just 7-10 to start the season. How about Oneonta State (8-1)? Looks like Upstate New York has a lot of upside for exciting conference races.

My two cents: On a hunch, I’ll say Plattsburgh State. We’re due for another surprising tournament run by a SUNYAC squad.

Mid-Atlantic: Who will win the inaugural Landmark Conference automatic qualifiers?

The stakes are higher in the third year of Landmark play as the Conference has completed its two year waiting period and now has an automatic qualifier. Scranton has won all but one of the titles – men’s and women’s, regular season and tournament, both seasons. On the women’s side, Scranton is always a good bet but not sure one. No. 19 Moravian defeated the Lady Royals at their place already. We’ll learn pretty quickly if Drew (8-0) is for real since the Rangers host Scranton and Moravian next weekend. The men’s side looks wide open. Want to make a case for Catholic because of Preseason All-American Jason Banzhaf? Go ahead. Favor Merchant Marine because of its 9-2 start? Fine. Defending champion Scranton scuffled through non-conference play at 6-5 but can get back on track in conference play.

My two cents: Scranton in women, Catholic in men.

    Part II comes tomorrow.