With the college basketball season roughly a third of the way through, let’s hand out some early-season hardware…
Best High-Major Team
Arizona State and Villanova (tie)
Going strictly on merit, the 12-0 Sun Devils take the award. Bobby Hurley’s high-octane offense, led by a trio of high-scoring guards and a powerhouse big man, have wins over Xavier on a neutral court and at Kansas. However, anyone who has seen Villanova play (especially against Gonzaga) knows they saw the best team in the country. The 12-0 Wildcats have incredible fluidity on offense and a much-improved defense, which is a frightening notion. If the Battle 4 Atlantis didn’t get flipped upside down with upsets, Villanova would have sole possession of this award, which I’m sure keeps Jay Wright up at night.
Best Mid-Major Team
For the sake of this exercise, I excluded Gonzaga from consideration, which made it a toss up between MTSU and Nevada. The Pack’s inability to close out what looked like potential wins at Texas Tech and at TCU (and a recent loss to San Francisco) cost them, as MTSU sports a pair of SEC wins (including one on the road) and two wins over a solid FGCU team. Kermit Davis had four big shoes to fill with JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw graduating, but Alabama transfer Nick King and Brandon Walters have filled in admirably in the frontcourt.
Best Low Mid-Major Team
Prairie View A&M
The Panthers are just 2-11, but their two wins over Eastern Kentucky and Georgia State came by a combined 21 points, and like most SWAC teams, the rest of their OOC schedule was a gauntlet. Byron Smith runs a full-court pressure system with two high-scoring guards in PG Gary Blackston and wing Zach Hamilton.
Worst High-Major Team
Cal and Pitt (tie)
Another tie! Pitt really came out of the gates strong with losses to Navy and Montana, but then Cal came charging with incredible losses to Chaminade and Central Arkansas (at home) by a combined 51 points!!! The Golden Bears did ruin all of their hard work by beating San Diego State at Viejas, and they also had Wichita State on the ropes in Hawaii (before being blown out by Chaminade). Long term, I think Pitt will have worse results, but for now, they’ll share joint custody of the trophy.
Worst Mid-Major Team
If the category was “Most Disappointing Mid-Major Team,” the trophy would go to Elon, the most experienced team in the country. The Phoenix have played with the cohesion of a team of JUCO imports after a sudden late-summer coaching change. I digress, as I’m eating into Little Rock head coach Wes Flanagan’s acceptance speech for “Worst Mid-Major Team.”
Little Rock runs the worst offense in D1. Granted, their leading returning scorer (Deondre Burns) has been sidelined with a knee injury, but I’ve never seen a team garner so many shot clock violations. Outside of Andre Jones (currently suspended), they don’t have a player capable of making a shot. The Trojans have one player with an offensive rating over 100, Ben Marcus, who mysteriously played only a total of nine minutes during a recent two game stretch. The Chris Beard Era, which lasted all of one magical season, seems like a lifetime ago.
Worst Low Mid-Major Team
An extremely tough decision for the voters (me), as it came down to a tight three-way race between A&M, UA Pine Bluff, and Delaware State. Ultimately, I gave A&M the nod, as they had the most “winnable” game of the three contenders – a neutral court game against Western Carolina that they still lost by double digits. The Bulldogs recently dropped to 0-13 after losing three consecutive road games by a combined 122 points.
High-Major Most Likely to Regress
The Cuonzo Martin era in Columbia got off to a weird start. First, he lost lost Michael Porter Jr. for the year (allegedly), and then essentially benched veteran point guard Terrence Phillips. Nevertheless, Missouri currently sports a KenPom ranking of 54th, with wins over Iowa State, St. John’s on a neutral court, and at UCF. However, each of those “marquee” wins should get an asterisk, as ISU had yet to move to Nick Weiler-Babb to point guard, St. John’s had no depth for back to backs (Mizzou also shot 14-27 from 3), and UCF didn’t have B.J. Taylor.
Missouri simply can not sustain their early season shooting numbers. As of December 10th, the Tigers ranked 11th nationally in eFG%, and 19th in 3PT% (while attempting them at the 26th-highest rate, odd for a Cuonzo Martin team). This regression started this weekend when Missouri shot 5-27 from three in a loss as a five-point favorite over Illinois in St. Louis.
High-Major Most Likely to Outperform Expectations
The Demon Deacons opened the year with a burning question: How do you replace the production of one of the most efficient big men in the country in John Collins? Danny Manning had no answer to this question early in the season, as Wake Forest lost home games to Georgia Southern and Liberty to start the year. It only got worse with a loss to Drake on a neutral court.
However, the Deacs have found a groove offensively in Manning’s spread pick-and-roll offense, with 7-foot-1 Doral Moore able to stay on the floor surrounded by a bevy of sharp shooting guards and wings. Defensively, no one will mistake Wake for the ’85 Bears, but a 2-3 matchup zone has been fairly effective since their disastrous start.
Mid-Major Most Likely to Regress
Another difficult category to decide, as I debated choosing another MVC team, Loyola Chicago. Ultimately, I picked the Crusaders, even though their regression has already started. Valpo possesses a lot of height, but it’s mostly ineffective height. Their only shot maker, Tevonn Walker, is currently out with mono (although he could return soon), and point guard Bakari Evelyn has been wildly inconsistent. The Crusaders’, who have not been competitive against good teams, best win this season came at the ARC against Utah State, who didn’t have Koby McEwen. The regression continued on Saturday, as Valpo lost by thirteen points as a 6.5 point favorite at UC Riverside.
Mid-Major Most Likely to Outperform Expectations
Maybe I’m showing my preseason bias, as I pegged Harvard as the Ivy favorites, but the Crimson are a good shooting team currently shooting the ball extremely poorly. Harvard has hit just 29% of their 3s, while shooting them at a top-100 rate. Bryce Aiken and Corey Johnson are shooting at a clip that simply has to improve, while top recruit Rio Haskett has also struggled mightily from deep. The Crimson still defend (mostly) at a typical Tommy Amaker level; therefore, once the shots start falling, Harvard should sit at the top of the Ivy again. Although, if Yale gets healthy, they will have a say.
High-Major Player of the Year
Trae Young, Oklahoma
This actually came down to three freshmen point guards with Trae Young, Collin Sexton, and Tremont Waters all viable candidates. However, Young’s enormous usage rate (second nationally) combined with an ORtg of 132.7 sets him apart. Young, essentially the high-major version of Steph Curry, is simply a once-in-a-program talent, a phrase generally reserved for mid-majors. Young leads the country in points (28.7), assists (10.4) and player efficiency rating (28.0), despite playing most of the season without Kris Doolittle, who just became eligible. Young could very well be a generational shooter. Sooner games are must-see-tv, or else you might miss something like what Trae Young did last week: 26 points and 22 assists in the same game.
Mid-Major Player of the Year
Max Heidegger, UCSB
For the sake or this exercise, I excluded Jock Landale (St. Mary’s) from consideration. After the dismissal of longtime head coach and noted wine connoisseur, Bob Williams, most pundits (but not all, as I dislocate my shoulder trying to pat myself on the back) expected UCSB to spend another year at or near the cellar of the Big West. However, Joe Pasternack came to Santa Barbara armed with two high-impact grad transfers in Marcus Jackson and Leland King, in addition to a lights out shooter in Max Heidegger, who is hitting 44.7 percent from 3, while also drawing contact and creating off the dribble at a much higher rate. Heidegger is the chief reason why UCSB could pull off a worst to first in the Big West.
Low Mid-Major Player of the Year
Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Jordan Howard, as UCA has the aforementioned win at Cal on their resume, and probably should have also won at Pauley Pavilion. That’s all thanks to Howard, who is shooting 43.4 percent on over 120 3- point attempts already this season. In UCA’s four high major road games against Baylor, California, UCLA, and Oregon, Howard scored a combined 118 points (29.5 average), while shooting 24-40 (60%) from deep.
Best High-Major Team Against the Spread
Florida State (8-2 ATS)
The Noles have picked apart a rather easy schedule, as the Fordhams and Kennesaw States of the world simply can’t match FSU’s length and athleticism 1-5. FSU did dismantle their rival Florida in Gainesville as nine-point underdogs, which stands as their most impressive win this season.
Best Mid-Major Team Against the Spread
Portland State (10-0 ATS)
Honorable mention goes to Southern Utah at 8-1 ATS.
Portland State’s up-tempo style makes it difficult to maintain a large lead against them for 40 minutes. PSU has morphed into a relentless full-court pressure defense under first-year head coach Barret Peery, and the Vikes put the betting world on notice in PK80 by hanging with Duke for 30 minutes, nearly beating Butler, and wiping the floor with both Stanford and California. PSU’s most miraculous cover came as 2.5 point underdogs against Santa Clara, when they made sixteen consecutive field goals to end the game after trailing by seventeen with thirteen minutes remaining.
Worst High-Major Team Against the Spread
Vanderbilt (0-9 ATS)
Vanderbilt fans (and bettors) now truly realize the value of Luke Kornet; the Commodores possessed a net +.29 points per possession (per Hooplens.com) with Kornet on the floor as opposed to off last year. With the exception of Virginia, the Dores have stayed relatively competitive in every loss, and with Bryce Drew bringing in five-star recruits Darius Garland and Simi Shittu next year, Vandy fans at least see light at the end of the tunnel.
Worst Mid-Major Team Against the Spread
UNC Wilmington (0-9 ATS)
After losing outright on December 22nd on a neutral court as 6.5 point favorites over Howard, UNC Wilmington will only get one more chance at a cover in 2017 against Delaware on December 30th. The Seahawks have missed a cover by a half point three separate times this season.
Biggest Moose of the Season
UNC -10.5 vs. Davidson
It’s hard to describe the final play that allowed Davidson to cover +10.5 AND the over 158.5 without seeing it. Be thankful for the UNC second team. Or curse them, depending which side or total you wagered on. The final layup also cost UNC 2H bettors a cover. The rare triple moose.
The line was 10.5 and the O/U opened at 158.5. Double moose. pic.twitter.com/CGh6PPzZlY
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) December 2, 2017