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.

Happy new season!

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!