Saturday, November 15, 2014

Morning News: Season Begins, Pitino Bowl, VCU Over Tennessee, SEC Debacles, Michigan St Struggles, And Much More

Eastern Washington and Texas Southern tipped the season off at 11am eastern time (8am local!)

The season got underway with a flurry on Friday night. With so much action, and not wanting to make this a 20,000 word post, I'm only going to talk about games with meaningful scores and/or results. A lot of elite teams and players got underway with blowouts over cupcakes (Duke, Kentucky, Arizona, Wisconsin, et cetera), and I want to talk about those teams... but it'll have to wait for another day. I'll go out on a limb and guess that we'll all have plenty of time to discuss those players and teams over the next five months.

Let's get to the action:

Season Gets Underway In Cheney, Washington Maybe not the greatest game we'll see all year, but it's fun to have college basketball back in our lives. This was also an opportunity to watch a fun Eastern Washington team that has a real chance to win the Big Sky. I picked them preseason as the narrow favorite over Weber State, while the media leaned the other direction.

Across the two halves we got a taste of both sides of Eastern Washington. In the first half their lack of size kept them off the glass and from scoring in the paint (only a single two-point field goal), but in the second half they went nuts behind the arc, which opened things up for Venky Jois inside. Tyler Harvey, who led the Big Sky in three-pointers made last season, was 7-for-10 behind the arc. It's obviously way too early to really focus on this, but Eastern Washington is the type of team that as a 13 or 14 seed could be a scary NCAA Tourney opponent, particularly one that isn't explosive offensively. When EWU is on, they can put up points in buckets.

Louisville Overwhelms Minnesota In the Pitino Bowl, it never really felt like Minnesota had a chance. They hung in, only down by around ten points all night, but just couldn't handle Louisville's pressure. The Cardinals ended up forcing 11 steals, starting fast breaks that mostly actually turned into free throw attempts. And there were a lot of free throws attempts - 75 in all, if we include both teams.

Throw in the odd location (Puerto Rico), the odd court (play had to be stopped many times to wipe moisture off the court) and all of the fouls, and it would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions from this game. Probably the one observation we can make is that Montrez Harrell is going to be an All-American candidate. He had 30 points, but the big change he has made relative to last season is extending his range, including 3-for-4 behind the arc. Minnesota doesn't want moral victories, but they played pretty well. Andre Hollins (22 points) looked sharp. We'll get a better look at them when they play in the NIT during Thanksgiving week.

Quick First Half Leads VCU Over Tennessee VCU hit 7-for-15 behind the arc in the first half of this game, and anytime they do that they're going to annihilate just about any team in the country. Tennessee was, unsurprisingly, down by 18 at the half. But things returned to reality in the second (VCU was just 4-for-14 behind the arc), and Tennessee actually pulled within eight points a few times before the Rams pulled away late. We expect VCU to be a very strong team this year, but Tennessee looks like a bubble team, and this is the type of premier win they really could have used.

There was a scary moment in this game when JeQuan Lewis fell to the ground for VCU, slammed his head on the ground, and appeared to have some kind of seizure. At this point, we just have to wait to hear if Lewis is going to have to miss some games. VCU's point guard depth becomes a problem if Lewis can't go for any significant length of time.

Ole Miss Goes Down To Charleston Southern Ugly, embarrassing November losses for SEC teams are a November tradition unlike any other. This one marks Charleston Southern's second win over a Power Five team ever. It was decided on a Cedrick Bowen put back dunk with 0.1 seconds left in overtime, which actually had to go to replay review before being upheld. Certainly this win makes Charleston Southern look more like a serious contender in the Big South Conference. But the real story is how bad Ole Miss looked here. They did nothing well, and didn't even have an individual player look good. They got out-rebounded, shot 20% on threes, had a 34.9 eFG%, committed 17 turnovers... it was just ugly all around. The Rebels weren't expected to be a Tourney team, but they're not looking like a team that will even come close.

Cedrick Bowen's put-back dunk with 0.1 seconds left doomed Ole Miss

Kim Anderson's Debut Goes Poorly Missouri's offense was an absolute mess in Kim Anderson's home opener as Missouri head coach.  They finished with 0.86 PPP, including 17 turnovers and 5-for-23 shooting behind the arc. And it was particularly ugly down the stretch. Not including a meaningless layup in the final seconds, the stats for Missouri in the final two minutes were 1-for-6 from the field with a pair of turnovers. Even their lone bright spot, freshman Montaque Gill-Caesar's team-leading 21 points, came on inefficient 9-for-23 shooting.

As for UMKC, it looks like New Mexico State will again be the class of the WAC, but this result potentially makes the case that the Kangaroos should be considered the second best team in the league. We'll have to see with more games how much of this was UMKC playing well and how much of it was Missouri just being terrible.

Georgia Falls To Georgia Tech At least this SEC loss wasn't particularly embarrassing, though it's still a really disappointing start to Georgia's season against their intrastate rival. Georgia Tech got two big performances of note. First, Charles Mitchell poured in 20 points and 9 rebounds. Remember that Mitchell transferred in from Maryland and was allowed by the NCAA to play right away. He'll be a monster on the glass all season long. Also, Quinton Stephens, who only played 12.8 minutes per game for the Yellow Jackets as a freshman, led all scorers with 22 points. It's only one game, but Georgia Tech doesn't look like an ACC bottom feeder so far.

This is an ugly start to the season for Georgia, but there's no reason to overreact. For one thing, Georgia Tech isn't exactly Charleston Southern or UMKC, and they played well. Georgia will feel like if they had shot the ball well (instead they were only 5-for-20 on threes and 4-for-14 on two-point jumpers) they would have won. So let's wait for a larger sample size before counting them out.

Michigan State Struggles The Spartans escaped with the win over Navy, but only just. It was a three point game in the final 25 seconds, and the Spartans ended up hanging on by only five. You obviously don't want to overreact to a single game, but this kind of game is exactly why I was so confused at Michigan State being ranked preseason. The logic appears to be "Meh, Tom Izzo will figure it out", but this is the least talented team he's had in years. Their go-to scorer is Travis Trice, who averaged a full 7.3 points per game (in over 22 minutes per game) last season. They lost a ton since last season, and none of the newcomers had much of an impact. We'll get a better idea of where Michigan State stands against Duke on Tuesday, but the way the Blue Devils looked in their opener, don't be stunned if the Spartans get run off the floor.

Paul Hewitt In Trouble? George Mason has gotten weaker every season of the Paul Hewitt tenure, and this loss to Cornell is an embarrassing way to open the season. In George Mason's defense, this result was due to fluky shooting more than anything. Cornell finished 9-for-18 behind the arc, with a 54.3 eFG%. In comparison, George Mason was just 7-for-27 behind the arc, with a 36.0 eFG%. That said, this is a Cornell team that went 2-26 last season. There's no excuse to lose to them, even with fluky shooting. Not sure anybody could be surprised if Hewitt is fired after this season (or during it).

Iona Tops Cleveland State This was an interesting chance to get a look at two teams that will contend for conference titles. I took Cleveland State to win the Horizon preseason. In the MAAC, I gave the narrow edge to Siena over Iona, but with the loss of Imoh Silas things might change. And this was an impressive way for Iona to start their regular season, led by Isaiah Williams (18 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists). This isn't a "bad" loss for Cleveland State, on the road at a good Iona team. So there's no reason to think they're not still the Horizon favorite.

Houston Wins At Murray State The Kelvin Sampson era if off to a nice start in Houston, with a road upset of a strong Murray State team. It's a very different Houston roster from last season, with so many transfers in and out, so it might take a while to get a good feel for this team. Their top scorer was Devonta Pollard (transfer from Alabama) while another key transfer (Cavon Baker, from a junior college after previously playing sparingly at Florida Atlantic) poured in 14. As for Murray State, this is going to be a very frustrating loss to open the season. They fell by only three points after a 6-for-25 performance behind the arc, after shooting a strong 37.6% behind the arc last season. They head into another tough game next, on the road at Middle Tennessee.

UTEP Crushes Washington State This score was a fair representation of how much the UTEP defense dominated this game. To put Wazzu's 0.70 PPP in perspective, they had the worst offense in the Pac-12 last season and only had scored fewer than 0.70 PPP once - on the road at Arizona. Nothing looked good for them, from a 40.7 eFG% to the 22 turnovers. This is a really good sign for a UTEP team that I picked as the Conference USA favorite (though the league gave the narrow edge to Louisiana Tech). UTEP doesn't appear to have a dominant scorer, but 6'8" Vince Hunter looked like a man among boys here (14 points, 16 rebounds). He was a force as a freshman, and now looks to be even stronger as a sophomore.

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