Last night eager Americans celebrated the beginning of a new Division III basketball season by dropping a ball covered with electric lights, eating lots of finger foods and celebrating with Dick Clark. Okay, maybe I’m slightly off on my holiday celebrations. We actually toss the ball up to start play, there are no lights on it and Dick Clark is not involved (though Dickinson and Clark may be).
And we actually started the basketball season on Saturday, November 15th, well before the calendar flipped over to 2009. But if you were busy with the holidays, college football or putting snow chains on the car, maybe you’re just getting into the 2008 – 2009 season. If that’s the case, here are nine story lines to follow – one for each region with a bonus – for men’s Division III hoops in 2009.
No. 1 – Northeast: Is Amherst overrated or underrated?
The Lord Jeffs finished second in the nation last year, are one year removed from a national championship and are undefeated this season. And yet there’s a chance they won’t get a single number 1 vote in the next Top 25 poll. That’s because the Lord Jeffs only returned one starter (Brian Baskauskas) from last year’s squad. Amherst hasn’t lost yet, but did have close calls against Emmanuel (2-7) and Skidmore (5-3). Despite the history of success, questions about the Lord Jeffs may linger. With Brandeis and Williams unranked, Amherst only has one opponent currently receiving Top 25 votes, Middlebury, and they won’t play each other until the regular season finale.
No. 2 – East: How long can Ithaca stay unbeaten?
At No. 17 Ithaca has achieved its highest ranking in the eight-plus years of our Top 25. The Bombers weren’t completely off the radar to start the season. Empire 8 coaches tabbed them as the conference’s preseason favorite. They’ve already won at Rochester and on the long, snowy road trip to St. Lawrence. Around the Nation talked with Coach Mullins and Company about Ithaca’s best start since 1941. Could the Bombers duplicate conference foe St. John Fisher’s 2005 accomplishment with an undefeated regular season?
No. 3 – Atlantic: Will more than one NJAC team make the NCAA tournament?
The NJAC hasn’t put more than one team in the tournament since Montclair State and Ramapo made the field in 2003. New Jersey City and Ramapo made the tournament in 2005 but the Gothic Knights were in Pool B. Conference play usually leaves even the better NJAC teams with a couple loses, but those teams also haven’t rolled up the impressive regional winning percentage needed to secure an at-large bid. This year No. 14 Richard Stockton and William Paterson have one regional loss each and only play each other once in the regular season.
No. 4 – Mid-Atlantic: Will No. 25 DeSales finally make the NCAA tournament?
Year after year the Bulldogs have been tantalizing close to making the NCAA tournament only to miss it in heart-breaking fashion. Last year they had 19 wins but lost to King’s in the MAC-Freedom championship. They had 20 wins but lost to King’s in the title game in 2005. They missed the tournament with 22 wins in 2004 and were conference runners-up again in 2003. This year’s edition is led by Darnell Braswell (16.5 ppg) and Brian Hunter, a transfer from Division I Lehigh. DeSales is undefeated with nine wins to start the year. But last year Elizabethtown started 10-0, mashed DeSales in a January match up and didn’t even make its conference tournament.
No. 5 – South: Which slow-starting preseason favorite will have the biggest turnaround?
If this question asked for the “fastest” turnaround, Randolph-Macon would have already won that honor. The preseason favorite in the ODAC started 1-3 before ripping off six straight victories, including the 75-63 win over No. 13 Ursinus. Two of the Tigers’ three loses are out of region but they still have plenty of competition among teams needing a turn around. Preseason No. 10 Mary-Hardin Baylor lost its first three games but got a nice win over No. 6 UW-Whitewater to move back to .500. You can even throw Maryville (Tenn.) in the mix as the Scots are 4-6 after last night’s loss at No. 18 Centre. All those loses are in region and the Scots are battling with several teams they don’t play, like Chapman and the Landmark members, to secure a bid through Pool B.
No. 6 – Great Lakes: Will we really have a post-season in which Wooster, Wittenberg, Hope and Calvin aren’t featured prominently?
A combination of youth, injuries and a relative drop off in Wittenberg’s success have left these four teams just 20-19 to start the year. Hope is still a question mark since the Flying Dutchmen have only played two Division III opponents (loses to Wheaton (Ill.) and Carthage). It’s not unreasonable to think that even these storied teams need to reload. But it would be strange not to see at least one of them advance far into the tournament. At least one has reached the regional finals every year since 2002. They have combined for 17 appearances in the last 6 tournaments.
No. 7 – Midwest: How many CCIW teams will make the NCAA tournament?
The CCIW has three teams in the Top 10 (Wheaton, Elmhurst and Augustana), four in the Top 20 (add Illinois Wesleyan) and a fifth that is unranked but undefeated (Millikin). Those five teams have four regional loses combined but soon head into grueling (for them) and entertaining (for us) conference play. The rest of the CCIW is a combined 13 games over .500 so there are no assured victories. Since only four teams make the CCIW tournament, there will be a lot on the line every game.
No. 8 – West: Who is more likely to secure home court advantage on the road to Salem – UW-Platteville, St. Thomas or Buena Vista?
This question isn’t about winning the conference or making the playoffs. It’s about rolling up enough wins and having the logistical advantage that factor into host site selections. I’m assuming geography and budget restrictions keep the NWC champion out of this conversation. UW-Platteville has the toughest hill to climb given the WIAC’s history of bruising play. Buena Vista has a regional loss but will be the prohibitive favorite to win the IIAC. Ditto for St. Thomas in the MIAC, minus the regional loss. And maybe the geographically isolated SCIAC champion could host the first and second rounds if the Conference puts two in the tournament and Chapman grabs a Pool B bid.
No. 9 – National: Are pollsters too focused on the CCIW and WIAC?
Seven teams in the Top 25 are from those two conferences. That’s a lot but not entirely unusual. Six teams from the CCIW and WIAC were ranked in the Top 25 at this point in 2007 and 2008. Maybe the voters are hedging their bets by picking multiple teams and figuring at least one will advance deep in the tournament. The CCIW and WIAC actually haven’t had an inordinate number of Final Four appearances with three each. That’s not bad but it isn’t more than the MIAA, NESCAC, NCAC, OAC, ODAC and UAA. The CCIW and WIAC sometimes meet in the tournament and cancel each other out, but not always. Last year the representatives were eliminated by teams from the MIAA (Hope), IIAC (Buena Vista and Loras) and UAA (Wash U.). In 2007 they were done in by the UAA (Wash U.) and MWC (Carroll). So are the voters (including me) missing the boat by putting so many in the Top 25?
Feel free to comment on these or any other story lines and happy new season!