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A Matter of Fact: Mid-Major Tuesday

by Matthew Stevens | December 9th, 2008

Fool me once…

Congrats to Mercer Bears for pulling the upset trick in consecutive seasons and shame on us in the college basketball world who were just as gullible to watch in shock once again.

After ruining the Hollywood debut of O.J. Mayo out west during Southern California’s home opener last season, Mercer loaded up its early season schedule with BCS powers again this time in the form of Southeastern Conference foes Alabama and Auburn.

However, this 2008-09 version of Mercer was seen as unlucky to continue the trend after finishing last season’s campaign a miserable 11-19 and ten days prior lost an exhibition game to Division II Georgia College & State (I looked it up and yes, that’s one school not a co-op name for a Division II Georgia University All-Star team type deal).

“GCSU executed their offense very well,” Mercer head coach Bob Hoffman said after the loss. “Much better than we ran our offense.” OUCH!

However, with Belmont’s stranglehold on the Atlantic Sun looking to be cut loose this season, Mercer might just be the team that punches that automatic Big Dance ticket.

Like the season before, Mercer’s first Division I opponent, Alabama, was hosting a showcase of its new McDonalds All-American in forward JaMychal Green. Only Mercer decided to crash the party by pulling off a 72-69 upset, leaving the Crimson Tide faithful and more importantly Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried (that seat warm enough for ya, sir?) to clean up the mess at Coleman Coliseum.

“For whatever reason, we didn’t do a lot of things very well tonight, and that sits on my shoulders,” Gottfried said. “(Mercer) played hard and did a great job. We didn’t take advantage of opportunities to help ourselves.”

What left Gottfried and the rest of the Tide staff scratching their heads at the end of the night was the big statistical discrepancy on the boards, where the Bears out-rebounded the Tide 56-38. The Bears also turned 24 offensive rebounds into 15 second-chance points. This clearly shows that like against USC, Mercer was not physically or mentally intimidated by the big, bad bully in the SEC.

Junior guard James Florence currently leads Mercer in scoring with almost 16 points per game, but the Bears have three other players (Daniel Emerson, Calvin Henry and E.J. Kusnyer) averaging double figures. Henry is averaging a double-double by posting 10.5 rebounds per contest as well.

“Any win for us is big,” Hoffman said after the Alabama win. “Any win on the road is huge. We’re trying to build a program, and it’s a step. This is a huge step for us in a mindset of what it takes to be a champion.”

The only two losses on the schedule this year for Mercer are at Dayton (who beat Marquette by double digits in Chicago) and an overtime home loss to Georgia Tech. By simply playing these games, the committee tends to give a schedule like that the benefit of the doubt in terms of seeding the lower automatic bids.

Three days later and 185 miles east, Mercer was outdone by–yup, you guessed it–themselves. The Bears found themselves 2/5 of the way from petitioning SEC commissioner Michael Silve from the de-facto West Division championship by winning 78-74 at Auburn. The Bears again out rebounded their BCS foe 46-21.

“We watched and watched and watched and watched against Alabama,” Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo said. “That was the emphasis coming in. They just destroyed us on the glass.”

The moral of this story is if Gottfried and Lebo are given their walking papers (and that’s becoming more and more likely by the hour) by the two Iron Bowl rivals, then maybe both schools’ athletic departments might want to consider giving an interview to–that’s right–Mercer University first year head coach Bob Hoffman. (Note to Bob: My commission is 10 percent so I assume the check is in the mail).

When undefeated means yawn…naptime.

As of the end of games on December 4th, Butler, Gonzaga, Dayton, Xavier, Brigham Young, Illinois State and Utah State were the only non-BCS conference schools with undefeated records. Let’s eliminate Butler, Gonzaga, Xavier and Dayton for the purpose of this topic and mostly because intelligent fans (for good reason) bristle at the idea of being referred to as a mid-major. Also, it should be noted those schools are ranked 1, 2, 10 and 16 in the latest RPI rankings.

How are the other three doing it? The answer is actually a math solution:

AVG RPI ranking (137) + AVG Strength of Schedule (335) – number of wins against Top 100 (2) = who cares? Wake me when these teams actually play somebody worth the committee’s time.

Not one of these three teams either has learned something significant or can accurately forecast where its squad is headed once conference play starts. It’s hard to say so early, but the non-conference schedules for this trio may cost each team an at-large bid come March.

Best in the West

The computers are not in love in hardwood being played in Westwood, Hollywood, Tempe, or Pullman. At least not yet.

The West Coast Conference with schools like of Gonzaga, San Francisco, St. Mary’s (CA), Portland, and San Diego is rated slightly higher than the Pacific 10 in conference RPI rankings. The Pac 10 got five NCAA Tournament bids last year.

Not sure if this going to be where it stands at the end of the season (not likely), but it gives the fans in the Pacific time zone something to argue about.

Conference Calls

Once I get off my soapbox with this topic, I’d like to get on the phone with several mid to low major conference commissioners.

When this column was being written, the MEAC, Atlantic Sun, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Big South, Southern, Summit League, Horizon League and MAAC have played conference games. HELLO, IT’S NOT EVEN CHRISTMAS!

The only reason conferences do this is to avoid unbalanced league schedules. The good news is the only people who don’t like these extremely early league games are coaches, athletic directors and fans. Other than that, it’s real winner of an idea.

Teams don’t have an identity yet, players haven’t adapted in roles, coaches possibly haven’t efficiently developed rotations, and fans aren’t ready to create pandemonium-type environments either during holiday breaks or before finals preparation.

Nobody has fully explained why playing everybody twice in your league is more important than cutting the opportunities for mid-major schools from playing BCS schools in December and earning a potentially higher strength of schedule.

What’s good for the Big 10 and SEC should be good for the Horizon League and Ohio Valley.

In the store measuring for a glass slipper: Mid-Major Team of Intrigue – UAB Blazers

In the heartland of Indiana, Hoosier fans far and wide still lament the fact that Mike Davis can’t recruit and can’t coach, and his proof of such made it so he had to leave.

Well if we turn to the scoreboard:

Wins – UAB 5, Indiana 4; RPI – UAB #24, Indiana #114 and Division 1 wins away from home – UAB 4, Indiana 0. Ah, the numbers never lie.

(Note: If should be pointed out that any time this season there’s an opportunity in this space to highlight the current demise of Indiana University men’s basketball, it shall be done. Glad we could clear that up.)

However, Davis (as long as he doesn’t take a higher profile job) landed the country’s fourth-best recruit in forward DeMarcus Cousins out of LeFlore High School in Mobile. UAB has defeated Arizona and held first-half leads over both Oklahoma and Boston College in Madison Square Garden.

This year’s version of the Blazers will be the most athletic team on the floor against every opponent for the rest of the season except Memphis and Louisville.

Currently Bracketography.com editor David Mihm has UAB as a 9-seed and as the second best team in Conference USA, the Blazers could be looking at easily being the higher seeded team in a first-round game when the committee meets in March.

Mid-Major Games to Watch Next Week

No. 24 Davidson (5-1) vs. West Virginia (5-1) – Tuesday, 7 p.m. EST: Stephen Curry is showcased in the most famous arena in the world.

Eastern Illinois (1-4) at Evansville (4-1) – Wednesday, 8 p.m. EST: Evansville head coach Marty Simmons applied and made it publicly known he wanted the EIU opening four years ago when he was at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

Butler (6-0) at Bradley (4-2) – Wednesday 8:05 p.m. EST: Two of the best mid-majors in the Midwest and currently the road Bulldogs are the top ranked RPI teams.

Saint Mary’s (5-1) at San Diego State (6-1) – Saturday TBD: Two of the best players in the west collide at Gaels’ guard Patty Mills and Aztecs forward Kyle Spain take the floor.

Illinois-Chicago (4-2) at Georgia Tech (4-1) – Sunday 2 p.m.: In 2004-2005, UIC lost to the Yellow Jackets by a point. The Flames have already a 19-point victory at Vanderbilt and head coach Jimmy Collins has confidence senior guard Josh Mayo (20.8 ppg).

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  1. John Says:

    I have some thoughts separate from what you wrote:

    Huge wins for Dayton(over Marquette), Western Kentucky(over Louisville and Georgia), and especially Cleveland State(over Syracuse). All wins for teams that are in conferences that get at-large bids. Keep an eye on these teams.

    The Sun Belt is off to a strong start. Arkansas State, Arkansas-Little Rock and North Texas are all off to excellent starts. This has a chance to be one of the most competitive seasons in Sun Belt history.

    Davidson came up against the one team that can beat them in the Southern Conference. Chattanooga is a well-coached team and they have the conference tournament on their home floor. The last time that Chattanooga hosted it, they won it in 2005. We know Davidson will be in the Southern Conference final, but if i’m Bob McKillop, I wouldn’t want to see the Mocs as my opponent in that game.

    What a performance by Ben Woodside. 60 points in a double overtime loss to Stephen F. Austin. Hopefully the Bison make the NCAA Tournament so the nation can see how good he really is.

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