Dave’s Top 25 Ballot (’16-’17): Week 7

Let me start this week’s blog out by apologizing to those who look forward to this series for not producing a blog last week. Things got a bit busy and by the time I had a moment to write it, there was no point (it would have been dated).

So, let’s start this week by looking at last week’s ballot:

Joey Flannery and Babson continue to be my top pick for the best team in the country, but no one is blowing me away with any kind of dominance.

1 – Babson
2 – Whitman
3 – Rochester
4 – Christopher Newport
5 – Amherst
6 – Ramapo
7 – Whitworth
8 – North Park
9 – UW-Eau Claire
10 – Denison
11 – UW-River Falls
12 – New Jersey City
13 – Tufts
14 – Salisbury
15 – St. Norbert
16 – Benedictine
17 – Endicott
18 – Neumann
19 – Hardin-Simmons
20 – Hope
21 – Marietta
22 – Middlebury
23 – Swarthmore
24 – Carthage
25 – Guilford

Dropped Out:
Wesleyan (Previously 10)
Brockport (Previously 22)
Wartburg (Previously 23)
Williams (Previously 24)

With that information now out there, let’s move on to this week, shall we?

The Top 25 continues to be a blood bath. There were 15 losses featuring 13 teams in the overall Week 6 D3hoops.com Top 25. My ballot featured 13 losses amongst 11 teams. In the last two weeks, 28 losses involving 19 teams. I don’t want to go further back and do that math. All in all, it leaves a voter like myself scratching my head so hard I might start losing hair! In the last few weeks, I have also basically thrown a grenade at the entire thing and waited for the dust to settle. I am using too many grenades.

Working on my Top 25 ballot this week. Looks neat, but this is before I got very far into it.

This week I just shook my head, erased the previous week, penciled in the top two and went back to the drawing board. However, I didn’t move teams as much as I thought I would. I noticed that a bulk of the losses have happened at the top of bottom, not in the middle. That ends up providing a bit of a cushion for teams like Amherst who lose two in a row and makes me get aggressive in removing others with only one loss when I want to get new teams on the ballot.

The other challenge is staying consistent on my thinking. I gutted Wesleyan the week before for losing three straight after I put them tenth. This year I have been more aggressive and simply removed the Cardinals from ballot. I have treated those who lose once every week or two a little less harshly, sometimes not moving them at all (depending on the circumstances). Then suddenly I realize they have four or more losses and maybe I haven’t been harsh enough. And how do I treat Amherst who lost twice (including once to Wesleyan)? Harshly like Wesleyan? Gently like Babson? Suddenly the thinking and the plan are being challenged from all directions? Do I change my methods? Do I adapt? Do I just go with what my gut tells me each week? Neither of them make it easy.

Usually, I try and go on a case-by-case basis, but that starts to get murky when you are talking about 30-50 teams, and countless losses or results, under consideration at any one time.

So, I tried a bit of a hybrid. Look at each team on a case-by-case basis, but also have the bigger picture in mind when it comes to consistency. I’ll admit, I am not sure how well I did this week. Like a lot of weeks, I could have gone around and around and around with teams and rankings. I could have changed my ballot every ten minutes and still be doing it right now if there hadn’t been a deadline. I was even thinking about different options while hanging out with my kids at the science center for part of the day on Monday.

Connecticut College defeated Amherst this past weekend continuing the trend that any good team can beat some of the country’s best this season.

The end result is what I am thinking this week, but I may blow it all up again next week and start over. The fact teams at .500 could have a legitimate chance to defeat a Top 10 team used to be pretty rare. It simply isn’t these days. There are very good teams who for whatever reason have taken more losses than expected and pose a real threat to what appear to be dominating teams. At the same time, some of the dominating teams just aren’t as superior as we are accustomed which allows their flaws to be even more revealing.

I cannot say with any confidence I know who the top teams in the country are right now. I can give you who I think they are, but already in the last few weeks those thoughts have been completely second guessed. Marietta is a damn good team, but can you explain why they are 11-4? Amherst has looked good, but suddenly they drop two games in a row! There is a good chance the best teams in the country don’t have a resume to match. Those teams in the 10-20 range very well could be who we see in Salem come the third weekend of March. The teams up top may not have had their “moments” that show us who they really are – stumbling for a few games after being revealed. The trick will be if those “moments” come in the next few weeks or ill-timed in March.

With that in mind, here is my attempt at gauging who the Top 25 teams in the country are.

1 – Babson (Unchanged)

2 – Whitman (Unchanged)

Sam Borst-Smith may have played well, but Rochester couldn’t escape their own gym without a loss against WashU.

3 – Rochester (Unchanged)
Surprise! Yeah. I didn’t move the Yellow Jackets despite a rough weekend including a loss to WashU. The more I tried to move to Rochester, the less likely it became. I simply don’t see who I would put them behind after just their first loss of the season. Now, I will not say I am comfortable. I have liked Rochester all year, but losing at the Palestra and having to come from behind in the first game of the weekend has me uneasy. It is only going to get tougher from here since they have to travel to Chicago and WashU later in the season… not to mention play the rest of the UAA schedule.

4 – Christopher Newport (Unchanged)
I’ll be honest. I have seriously thought about moving the Captains down despite the fact they keep winning. However, I keep in mind the fact they only have a second loss because of a lucky heave from Salisbury right before the holiday break. That leaves just a dismantling by Marietta at the beginning of the season. I have tried to take more stock in that loss considering the struggles Marietta is now having, but I have leaned on thinking the Marietta squad I saw then is drastically different than the one currently playing and the same goes for CNU. However, the Captains have their flaws, especially inside and I know their opponents will try and expose those flaws. Top five feels too high.

How good is Denison? Dave has decided to buy in, but we shall see how long this lasts.

5 – Denison (Up 5)
The Big Red have skyrocketed the last few weeks in my poll. I have tried to remain a bit subdued at the fact they have only lost one game, but at the same time there is a thought that if a team has gotten this far in this season without more losses they must be good. This isn’t exactly true across the board. Denison’s strength of schedule right now is surprisingly low. However, while the wins over Wooster, Ohio Wesleyan, and DePauw aren’t staggering… I do know those are good programs who appear to be gaining strength after a difficult start to the season. My thinking is Denison may be better than advertised, so I am riding the wave. Unfortunately, we probably won’t get a chance to see if I am right until February 1-8 when Denison plays at Ohio Wesleyan, vs. Wooster, and at DePauw. The NCAC season will be decided that week.

6 – Ramapo (Unchanged)
Surprise again! Another team takes its first loss and doesn’t move. In this sense, I remain consistent. Like Babson earlier this season, I didn’t punish Ramapo for losing to New Jersey City, on the road, in overtime. Yes, NJCU is not at full strength which some could read into and say that means the Roadrunners aren’t that good if they barely got by the Gothic Knights. However, I also know NJCU will take you out of your offensive game no matter their personnel, so I chalk this up as expected. I did not expect any NJAC team to get through the conference unscathed. That is the case with Ramapo and thus one of the better teams I have seen in person isn’t going to get dinged for taking a loss I pretty much expected.

7 – Whitworth (Unchanged)

8 – North Park (Unchanged)

9 – UW-River Falls (Up 2)

10 – Tufts (Up 3)
Tufts is tough to read. I almost feel like it is smoke and mirrors. Are they really a top ten team as I have had for quite a bit of the season? Or have they just floated there because I have to put someone tenth. The win over Middlebury gave me confidence the Jumbos may be for real, but Wesleyan and Connecticut College loom large this week.

11 – UW-Eau Claire (Down 2)

12 – New Jersey City (Unchanged)
Odd week for the Gothic Knights. Lose earlier to Stockton, but recover to beat Ramapo in overtime at home. NJCU would have gone down based on the loss to Stockton; risen based on the win over Ramapo. Thus, they stay where they are. This might be one of the best defensive teams in the country right now even if they are not at full health. They’ve got a couple of good road tests coming up they need to survive.

13 – St. Norbert (Up 2)

14 – Endicott (Up 3)

15 – Salisbury (Down 1)
The Sea Gulls are starting to worry me. They seem to struggle to stay focused. Two losses in Las Vegas was shocking, but certainly understandable considering they played two of the better teams there. However, they could have also come out of South Point Arena 2-0. Then they show up at York (Penn.) who is playing without their best player inside and Salisbury rolls over. They should have dominated. Their team is designed to dominate squads like York who are rebuilding. I need to see Salisbury show they can take on all comer before I start thinking about bailing on what I think is a very talented squad.

Mason Reyer and the Quakers have quietly stormed to the top of the ODAC. Courtesy: Guilford Athletics (Ava Nadal)

16 – Guilford (Up 9)
I have been quietly watching the Quakers for weeks now. They, in return, have been quietly cruising through the ODAC and find themselves tied for first place. They have won eight straight including dominating Roanoke. I think a lot of voters don’t know what to do with ODAC for good reason. The top has come back to earth a little bit, so it’s hard to put a lot of faith in the teams at the top. However, Guilford’s two losses are by a combined eight points and when they win, they tend to win easily. The true test may not come until January 28 against Virginia Wesleyan, but keep an eye on this week against Emory and Henry and Hampden-Sydney.

17 – Amherst (Down 12)
Guh. Talk about a bad week for the men’s squad. The loss to Wesleyan, okay. But to compound it with a loss to Connecticut College? The former Lord Jeffs have now lost not only two in a row, but three of their last four and four of their last six! It’s like the Babson game was all they were focused on. And it isn’t going to get any easier. The next four are against Bowdoin, Colby, Williams, and Trinity who all spell blood in the water. I can’t say for sure why Amherst struggled this past weekend, but rest assured the next four opponents have seen why and will try and exploit it as well.

18 – Hardin-Simmons (Up 1)

19 – Hope (Up 1)

Jack Knupp and WashU haven’t blown me away this season, but their win over Rochester is too difficult to ignore. Courtesy: WashU Athletics

20 – Washington Univ. (Unranked)
Ok. I finally voted for the Bears. I know a lot of voters thinking highly of WashU (thus why they are 11th despite my 20th place [previously not on my ballot] vote). I am not sure why. They are 11-3 which is obviously good, but they have lost to UW-Eau Claire by 14, Central by four, and Illinois Wesleyan by a point. They then needed overtime to beat a below-their-average Wooster squad, barely survived a tough Chicago team, and needed to comeback against an overrated (by me previously) Emory team. Yes, UWEC is in my Top 25 and IWU has been in and out (and, spoiler, still flirting). Prior to this weekend, the Bears just didn’t excite me. However, they did beat Rochester on the road (the second game of the Atlanta-Rochester trip to boot) and that got me thinking: sometimes teams don’t win pretty, they win ugly. Maybe WashU is one of those teams. Not sure how much we will learn in the next three weekends should they win (vs. NYU, vs. Brandeis; at Carnegie Mellon, at Case Western Reserve; vs. Carnegie Mellon, vs. Case Western Reserve). Lose? May answer my questions more fully. For now, I’m on the bandwagon. Hope it doesn’t hurt as much as it did for St. Louis Cardinals fans on the Jason Heyward bandwagon last offseason (that’s an inside joke).

21 – Marietta (Unchanged)

22 – Middlebury (Unchanged)

23 – Wesleyan (Unranked)
The Cardinals are either suffering from whiplash or learning to play the yo-yo. They went from tenth to unranked to 23rd on my ballot in three weeks. They went from ninth to unranked to 24th on the D3hoops.com poll. Wow, what a ride. But when you beat Amherst and close out the weekend ending your three-game losing streak with a second straight win at Trinity… it is bound to happen. Wonder where they land next week after playing Emmanuel, Tufts, and Bates.

Tahron Harvey and the Eagles suffered their first conference loss in 34 games (conference record) against Concordia (Wis.).

24 – Benedictine (Down 8)
I seriously considered removing the Eagles from the Top 25. Yes, it was a single loss, but it was in conference where to be in the Top 25 they probably should be dominating. I realize it is hard to keep winning in any conference (which makes St. Norbert’s run even more impressive), but I was very concerned with the loss to Concordia (Wis.). The only thing that stopped me from removing them was feeling I might have been too harsh, but more importantly not sure who I would replace them with. Plenty of candidates, that’s for sure. Just not sure if any of them have proven anything more than Benedictine. We shall see.

25 – Neumann (Down 7)
I also nearly removed the Knights as well. This might have been one of the few times I expected a team to keep winning. Or more appropriately, I expected that if Neumann were to lose it would be to Cabrini or Gwynedd Mercy. Not to Rutgers-Camden who was previously 1-9 (now 3-11). Though, I did consider that Camden is playing far better now and nearly knocked off Ramapo as well. However, the last few weeks I have noticed that Neumann’s leading scorer is missing. James Butler hasn’t shown up on a box score in awhile.

Dropped Out:

Cam Wiley and the Garnet lost two last week by an average of 17.5 points dropping them out of my ballot.

Swarthmore (Previously 23)
The Garnet had a rough week. They lost two in a row and neither of the games were close. Johns Hopkins handled them 70-52 in Baltimore and Franklin & Marshall steamrolled the Garnet 83-66 at Swarthmore. Not sure what happened. I don’t see any missing players. This was a chance for Swarthmore to take firm control of an okay Centennial Conference this season and instead it is has turned things into a free-for-all. Maybe I had put too much stock in the Garnet.

Carthage (Previously 24)
Speaking of free-for-all, the CCIW is shaping up that way as well. I thought Carthage was maybe turning into a Cinderella and setting themselves up nicely, but they then lose to Illinois Wesleyan. Not a bad loss, but IWU is without preseason All-American Trevor Seibring (back) right now. Add to the fact that the Red Men barely got past Illinois Tech and I start to see red flags. CCIW is always competitive and good, but maybe this year it doesn’t have a dominating side like in years past.

So, there you go. An interesting week to say the least. There are already losses on my ballot like North Park who lost on Monday night to Manchester. I am sure the losses will mount up once again and I will be back to the drawing board again.

But I do enjoy this. My struggles to find the best 25 teams in Division III men’s basketball means that there is plenty of good basketball to go around. Last March was awesome with how the tournament played out. I can’t imagine this year’s event will be just as exciting. We have a lot of good teams who put on a show each and every night. I am not complaining in the least. Gives us more to talk about.

Previous Ballots:
Week 5
Week 4
Week 2
Week 1

Dave’s Top 25 Ballot (’16-’17): Week 5

Let me start by wishing each of you who read this had a wonderful holidays. The holidays were very, very busy … not to mention filled with plenty of basketball! I watched my fair share of games from my iPad or computer from the warmth of a hotel room. I also watched my fair share of results in front of a lovely Christmas tree in my home. It certainly made the last few weeks entertaining. It, however, did not make voting in the men’s Top 25 any easier.

No surprise in this age of parity that there are plenty of losses to contemplate. Of course with losses come wins that need to be analyze as well. Nothing is simple. A win isn’t equal to another win. A loss doesn’t equal another loss. There is a lot to consider especially when there has been two weeks of basketball to consider.

When it comes to the topic of parity, I have talked a lot about it. However, I did like the take from Bob “Titan Q” Quillman on the Top 25 forum on D3boards recently. I won’t share the entire thing, but here is a snippet I thought summed things up well – probably better than I have been able to describe:

“I am confident there is a group of 4-5 teams that are the favorites to win the national championship, but it’s not really even obvious to me who those teams are yet.” Bob then continues, “starting immediately after that “elite tier,” I see a huge pack of extremely even teams that spans from about 5 down to 25. Trying to sort out the Top 25 is always fun but when there is this much parity, I doubt there will be many concrete answers until things get settled in the tournament.”

To read more of Bob’s thoughts, click here.

To Bob’s point, there are a number of teams who can be considered for the Top 25 on any given week. I have had to stop allowing myself to keep expanding my list. Maybe that is stubborn and that effort to put some blinders on to keep from getting distracted may have me miss a team or two, but at the same time I don’t have enough time in a week to allow my list to expand to 50 or more squads. They all have an argument to be on the list. What makes it challenging is they all also have an argument for why they shouldn’t be in the Top 25. Furthermore, an argument that works for Team A doesn’t work for the rest. Just as an argument for Team B doesn’t work for the rest. It is very, very hard to stick to just one set of factors to make determinations.

For me this week, I spent a good amount of time nearly blowing up the ballot. Starting from nearly scratch. You will find that even if teams won in the last two weeks, I may have removed them. Sometimes I asked myself a basic question: would they beat this team or that? That basic question actually had me make some bold moves. I have previously unranked team in my Top 10. I have another just outside the Top 10.

Of course there were some significant losses that dictated a lot of moves I made, though the bottom half of my previous ballot didn’t lose as much as the top half which usually makes it harder to get new teams in. However, there are other factors, results, and details that caused me to make many of my moves.

Getting the opportunity to see Salisbury play Ramapo at the D3hoops.com Classic is invaluable on so many different levels.

I will say one of the biggest advantage any Top 25 voter has is seeing teams in person. It is impossible to see all of them across the country in gyms and arenas and luckily video streaming has become an invaluable tool. As the season progresses, web streams will become my most used tool. However, I do get the advantage of seeing some very good teams in person and this year at the D3hoops.com Classic was no exception. You will see how that impacted my ballot shortly. However, it goes to prove why events like Hoopsville and D3hoops.com Classics and others with top-tier teams are not only great events to attend for teams, but also invaluable for Top 25 voters who choose to show up to such events (more than you may realize). As I have in the past, I have restarted my efforts to mark who I have seen in person in the past year (including the second half of last season) with an “*” next to each one. Maybe at some point this year I will also indicate who I have seen on video, but for now I don’t think it needs to be represented.

With that, let’s get on with the ballot. As with most weeks, I won’t comment on all teams. I will say something for those I think need a snippet or I have a thought on that is relevant this week. Of course as we get started, click here for a reminder of last week’s ballot. Otherwise, here is this week’s:

1 – Babson (Unchanged)

Eric Bridgeland’s Whitman squad hasn’t lost and continues to move up the polls. But are they for real?

2 – Whitman (Up 1)
I moved the Blues up a spot after they beat Marietta. In hindsight, maybe I should have just left them at #3, but I thought despite some tight results they have at least beat the competition in front of them and remained undefeated. That all said, I am nervous. Whitman has never been this high in the rankings. Are they really that good? Did getting past Whitworth last season in the NCAA tournament really make that big a difference? Or are they going to peak early and struggle in conference (though, saying that makes me shake my own head). Whitman didn’t blow me away with their win at home against Wooster. However, they got past an admittedly somewhat-struggling Marietta squad. We shall see how things progress. I hope I end up being very comfortable with this in a few weeks.

3 – Amherst* (Down 1)

4 – Christopher Newport* (Up 1)

5 – Whitworth (Up 1)

6 – Rochester* (Up 2)

7 – New Jersey City (Up 4)
What makes the Gothic Knights scary on paper is their defense. Have you seen how much they hold their opponents below their offensive average? In a lot of cases, 20 or more points. However, I feel I might be buying in too much with much of the NJAC schedule including two games against Ramapo ahead. The NJAC has struggled to live up to national expectations this century. In the last ten or so years, only one team has gotten out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. However, the top of the conference is shaping up to be pretty special … and there are voices telling me NJCU may be the best it has been in recent history. Some tough games coming up… I am holding by breathe.

8 – North Park (Up 5)
I don’t have a game to point to for this move. The Cardinals Vikings (SMH, typo on my part) moved up because of a lot of other teams moving around. That said, they have two legitimate All-Americans and the supporting staff is playing extremely well. Many knew North Park would be good this season, but my feeling right now is they are far better than I expected. This team looks scary this season.

Cory Soanes and Ramapo impressed at the D3hoops.com Classic. The Roadrunners and NJCU could have magical seasons ahead.

9 – Ramapo* (Unranked)
This is the biggest move I think I have made on my Top 25 ballot during a season (I moved UMHB up pretty darn high after they were unranked and finished runner-up to Amherst for the national championship in 2013). Ramapo really impressed me in Las Vegas this year. I think this is the best Roadrunners team I have seen at the D3hoops.com Classic and that includes teams who have been national ranked in the past. They play an aggressive and controlled defense, they have several weapons on offense which keeps teams from being able to double-team, and they have plenty of speed. Coach McBreen clearly thinks this team has more to prove, but he is also coaching a squad who is far more ready this time of year than in years past. This team is really scary and really deep. The only challenge is Ramapo has been blowing out a lot of teams this season. Focusing on beating good teams and playing an entire 40 minutes has been a challenge – they allowed Salisbury who was down 12 to get back in the game and nearly beat the Roadrunners. NJAC play could either get them focused on putting away teams or allow a few to get wins they shouldn’t have gotten and put Ramapo in trouble. I look forward to seeing how it plays out.

10 – Wesleyan (Up 7)
Everyone knew the Cardinals had a good test this holiday season after starting the season undefeated. They rose to the challenge including a dominating win over Marietta. Wesleyan’s inside presence is better than I had given them credit. The question remains: will they be exposed in NESCAC play? Right now, I think Joe Reilly’s team may be the biggest surprise. I already had been told the NESCAC could be 7-deep this year on top. I think people expected Wesleyan to be in that group of seven. I don’t think people thought they could end up being the best of the group.

Josh Weix and the Blugolds were one of the best offenses I have seen recently.

11 – UW-Eau Claire* (Unranked)
Here is an example of a team that kept rising on this week’s ballot as I asked the question: “would they beat so-and-so?” This may have been one of the better disciplined offensive teams I have seen in a long time – especially this time of year. Their ball movement was tremendous. They broke the shooting record at the D3hoops.com Classic with a better-than-.630 performance in their first game against Gustavus Adolphus. They have size, outside shooting, and a really good defense. Many had thought UW River Falls would be the class of the WIAC. UW Whitewater is undefeated (though spoiler alert, I am not voting for them as of yet). However, I think the Blugolds may be the best WIAC team this year especially if the lights of conference play don’t distract them.

12 – Tufts (Down 2)

13 – Salisbury* (Down 4)
Two losses you would think result in a bigger fall than four… and even I took extra time to make sure this was the right move. I actually had them down to 19th at one point, but the same question I asked UWEC I asked Salisbury. I just couldn’t get them lower without putting them behind teams I thought they could beat. Yes, the D3hoops.com Classic was rough, but the Sea Gulls lost to a very good Ramapo squad and Hardin-Simmons (who proved some things to me). They simply ran into a couple of very good teams and tough match-ups while also having to deal with the fact they are adjusting to changes at point guard. Those losses should only make Salisbury a better team. If not, we will know very quickly and my decision to only lower them four spots will be adjusted just as quickly.

St. Norbert once again has more questions than answers as they move into their conference schedule.

14 – St. Norbert (Down 7)
I am going through the usual Q&A with the Green Knights. Nothing on paper blows one away about SNC, however they always show they can keep winning. Sure, their conference isn’t the most difficult, but they control the conference so amazingly well. The loss to UW-Oshkosh isn’t shocking, but it does set-up for a tougher NCAA tournament bracket in March. I may have allowed St. Norbert to float a little too high on my ballot, so the loss and other results allowed me to possibly recheck my expectations a little.

15 – Marietta* (Down 12)
Ouch. Tough few weeks of December for the Pioneers. Lost three out of four and 0-2 in the period of this vote. Yes, they lost to really good teams, so I tried to not to ding them too much for that. However, what got them so high on my ballot is that they had beaten similiar teams so I expected that trend to continue. One thing seems to be coming true, they struggle with any squad that has good size inside who does more than just stand around. Marietta may be learning the hard way that relying on Edwards inside isn’t going to get them far. As good a player as he is, he needs others to step up and be just as dangerous. I sense that when the team loses Edwards as a threat, they lose their offense. I could be wrong, but I plan to watch them very closely the next few weeks to see what adjustments they make to compensate for what John Carroll, Wesleyan, and Whitman exposed.

16 – Benedictine* (Down 2)

17 – Endicott (Up 1)

18 – Denison (Up 2)

19 – Hope (Down 7)
Another holiday period for another team. The Dutchmen probably don’t want to see Williams or Wilkes again, though one of them is likely to be repeated in the future. If Hope had only lost to Williams, so be it. However, the Wilkes loss shocked me the most. Wilkes isn’t bad, but they aren’t necessarily a threat to Top 25 squads unless something is wrong. I probably should have dinged Hope a bit more and moved them further down, but I have too many questions for those below. We shall see how Hope responds from at least one ugly loss. They aren’t going to get necessarily the same challenge from the conference as we have come to expect, so it will be the small things that will be the most important to watch.

Nathaniel Jack and Hardin-Simmons realize it is now or never. Could the Cowboys surprise many this year?

20 – Hardin-Simmons* (Unranked)
I voted for the Cowboys in the preseason and had been scratching my head since. I knew they had lost players, but I didn’t quite grasp what was going on. Turns out they had suffered their fair share of injuries and I was lucky enough to see them back at 100% (virtually) for the first time all season. HSU has a ton of weapons starting with Nathaniel Jack. He not only knows were he needs to be, but he has such amazing court and game awareness that he adds a completely different dimension besides good ball handling and speed to his list of weapons. Mix in Justin Jones inside (6-8 force) along with shooting weapons like Hopper, Dixon, O’Neil, and others and this team could be a surprise come March. They have to stay focused in a conference that might not test them as much as other voters want, but Craig Carse has a scary squad featuring seven seniors who realize it is now or never.

21 – UW-Rivers Falls (Up 3)

22 – Brockport (Unchanged)

23 – Wartburg (Down 4)

24 – Williams (Unranked)
I wasn’t sold on Williams (or much of the rest of the NESCAC like Middlebury), but then they beat Hope. It ended up being a coin-toss between the Ephs and Middlebury and I went with the more southern team (not a decision factor). Williams also leads to a fourth NESCAC team on my ballot which seems pretty incredible, but when those in the conference tell me they think it is a seven-deep conference then maybe this feels right. We shall find out soon enough as conference play begins. Did I pick the right squad to ride?

25 – Neumann (Unchanged)

Dropped Out:
I will preface this segment by saying I had to find teams to remove to get other teams onto the ballot. I wish I had found a few more because I felt there were other deserving teams to vote for as well. While none of the teams below did anything major to drop out, there was enough of an excuse or just an uneasy feeling that had me make the move. It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination especially when the lower-half of my Top 25 didn’t take as many losses that make it easy to make these decisions.

North Central’s Connor Raridon is out with a broken hand. Cardinals seem to be missing his shooting presence a lot.

North Central (Ill.) (Previously 15)
There wasn’t a lot the Cardinals did or did not do to drop from 15th to off my ballot, but the fact one of their top weapons, Connor Rairdon, is out with a broken hand concerns me. I think they are a bit more exposed and their offense is going to be easier to defend. I realize they only lost one game since the last poll (to a good UWSP team) and they beat Wartburg (who I still have ranked), but I am not as confident about them as I was prior.

Illinois Wesleyan (Previously 16)
Another example of a team who did a lot to deserve to be dropped out, but something about their result doesn’t blow me away. They beat Chicago, lost to Middlebury. Neither of those teams are currently on my poll. While the Titans appear to be a good team, I am just not blown away. Yes, I could argue that about others as well. For now, IWU is out. Conference play could easily change my mind.

Emory (Previously 21)
Emory actually did NOT lose during the holidays between Top 25 polls, but when I went back and looked through who they have played and what they have done, I just wasn’t impressed. Wins over William Peace, Guilford, and Maryville don’t spur me. Losses to Covenant and LaGrange are not ignorable. On a week I am looking for excuses to drop a team from my ballot, Emory gave me reasons to move them out and nothing to keep them in.

Swarthmore (Previously 23)
Another team that didn’t lose any games and won a tough game in overtime to a squad who may be far better than advertised (Hood), but Swathmore isn’t blowing me away, either. In many ways, it came down to whether I thought Ramapo, UW-Eau Claire, Hardin-Simmons, or Williams would beat Swarthmore (or others on the “Dropped Out” list) and the answer was: yes. I do think Swarthmore would struggle with those squads. For now, they out. We shall see if Centennial play possibly helps them this year.

Previous Ballot blogs:
Week 4
Week 2
Week 1

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.