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.


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.


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.

Cinderella need not apply

As you read this some unheralded team out there is about to go on an incredible run that will land them in the NCAA tournament. They will enter the conference playoffs as a low seed, probably a seven or an eight. They’ll upset teams with much better records, riding their momentum to the conference championship, a net cutting ceremony and an automatic bid. As long as you’re not stuck playing the role of the ugly step sister, Cinderella makes for a nice story.

But in some conferences, Cinderella need not apply.

They send a smaller group to the playoffs and let them fight for the top prize. This is the last week for teams in those conferences to fight for a place in the conference playoffs, just so they can start the struggle over again in those playoffs. And that’s a pretty good story, too.

Here are a few races to watch as teams fight for the right to fight for the right to party on Selection Sunday.

CCIW men (Five teams alive for four spots): The regular season has been everything we hoped and there’s a good chance the ending will be just as exciting. Five teams are within two games of each other with two games remaining for all but Augustana. The Vikings won the last two tournaments, but only lead Carthage for the last playoff spot by half a game. The Red Men control their own destiny but have to beat Raymond-recharged Wheaton (Ill.) and Elmhurst. All those “buts” mean ours will be on the edge of our seats until the very end.

Liberty League women: (Five teams for three spots in a four team tournament): Complicated tiebreakers notwithstanding, Union appears to be the only team safely in. Rival RPI is in good shape, too. Then there are four other teams for two spots including three – St. Lawrence, William Smith and Hamilton – who have accounted for five NCAA tournament appearances in four years.

MAC Commonwealth (Five teams for two spots in a four team tournament): These teams have been tightly grouped together all year long. Preseason favorite Widener has already secured the top seed and Elizabethtown has a playoff spot. Everyone else besides Arcadia is still in the mix. Widener only lost twice in conference but it was against Leb Val and Lycoming who could both miss the playoffs, underlining how close these teams are.

The ultimate anti-Cinderella conference is the UAA. Its automatic bid goes to the regular season winner and there is no tourmanent. Washington U. locked up the men’s bid but the women’s side has intrigue left. The February 22nd game between Wash. U and Rochester feels like a de facto title game. But Chicago has games left against both and can still impact this race, even if its own title hopes are slim.

Delaware Valley's Jason Goldheimer And while Delaware Valley fits the Cinderella mold nicely, the Aggies are also fighting for a conference playoff spot. Kudos to new coach Casey Stitzel who has Del Val a game ahead of Alvernia (and two in front of two other teams) for the final slot in the MAC-Freedom playoffs. Last year Del Val was 3-22 and winless in conference. If the Aggies can hold their lead for seven more days, they will have their first postseason berth since 1969.