Inside the College Game
“Number five on Nick Fazekas.”
[img_assist|nid=4078|title=Ramon Sessions - AP Photo: John Froschauer|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=390]With 5:18 left on the game clock and Nevada involved in a hard fought battle with Gonzaga, those were some of the last words Wolf Pack coach Mark Fox wanted to hear. His All-American big man had just fouled out on a ticky-tack wrist slap, trying to prevent Zags’ point guard Jeremy Pargo from an easy score. Pargo missed the shot, but made both free throws and followed up with a slashing lay-up on the next Gonzaga possession.
Josh Heyvelt’s score a few possessions later put Gonzaga ahead 67-61 with under four minutes to go. To make matters worse, the Zags were in the midst of a six point run since Fazekas had fouled out. Things looked grim for the boys from Reno, and Fox knew his team was about to experience a true test of its meddle.
What followed was enough to show me that the Wolf Pack are not just that team with Nick Fazekas. It seemed like a passing of the torch of sorts, with Nevada at least temporarily taking the reigns as the top mid-major program in the nation from Gonzaga.
Nevada went on a 14-0 run to take a 75-67 lead with just 37 seconds left on the clock. Point guard Ramon Sessions and swingman Marcellus Kemp had willed and shot the Wolf Pack to victory, and in doing so had made the nation aware of a team that cannot be slept on. A team that is more than one talented big man.
Just hours before, another major match up of mid-majors had concluded with equal if not greater excitement. After blowing a 10 point halftime lead, Creighton was forced to comeback from a nine point deficit against Missouri State with 3:30 left in the game. The Blue Jays, on the backs of stars Anthony Toliver and Nate Funk, managed to show some grit and win a crucial early-season game.
Creighton showed why they were ranked preseason, and avoided dropping to 6-5 on the year. Meanwhile, another MVC powerhouse battle ended with Northern Iowa topping Wichita State, who are now in a three game slide.
The mid-major hype became a true bandwagon during last year’s tournament, thanks largely to the well-recorded heroics of George Mason’s Cinderella ride. However, with the amount of hype circulating around some mid-majors, a final four run from a team like Nevada or Air Force could hardly be seen as a Cinderella story at all.
This is my turn to make sense of it all, with this week’s mid-major focus.
Unseen, Unheard, Unheralded
Who’s Flying Under the Radar?
1. Drexel Dragons (10-2)
They may not be a part of Philadelphia’s holy Big 5 (Villanova, Penn, LaSalle, Temple, St. Joseph’s), but Drexel has more than proven that they are as good as any of those teams. Winning road games against Syracuse, Villanova, Temple, and Vermont as well as knocking off St. Joe’s and George Mason at home have put the Dragons at the top of the CAA. This team is working on putting itself in position for an at-large if they can’t win the CAA tournament. A group of talented guards surrounds big man Frank Elegar, and coach James “Bruiser” Flint has established the Dragons as an up-and-coming power in the CAA.
2. Lon Kruger, UNLV Coach
Most of the hype around the Running Rebels has been about them stalling Bob Knight’s quest for the record. However, this team stands at 14-2 on the year and handed Nevada its only loss. Despite a roster with no player taller than 6’9””, Kruger has made his team a formidable Mountain West contender, Kruger has done it with his son, Kevin, running the offense and versatile senior Wendell White (14 ppg, 6 rpg) developing into a star. The big test for Kruger, a former NBA head coach, will be Saturday’s match with Air Force, which could prove to be a battle between the Mountain West’s top teams.
3. Eric Coleman, Northern Iowa Center
I keep hearing Grant Stout’s name when people talk about Northern Iowa, but it is Coleman who has been the key player for the Panthers. Standing at only 6’6””, Coleman is tough, strong, and imposing at the center position. He is averaging a double-double at 14.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, and he makes the most of his opportunities, shooting 58% on the year. Coleman has been hot of late, with double-doubles in seven of his past nine games.
Top of the Hype Heap
Analyzing the Top Mid-Majors
In this mid-major edition of “Inside College Hoops,” I figured I’d go about breaking down the top four mid-major teams as I see them.
1. Nevada Wolf Pack (12-1)
As I’’ve already stated, I love this Wolf Pack team. They have a great balance of talent, and Nick Fazekas is on the fast track to first team All-American status. Ramon Sessions is the type of point guard I want running my team, as he defends well and knows how to run an offense, but can also take over at times as he did against Gonzaga. Marcellus Kemp is one of the best second scorers in college basketball, and when he is hot he can put the Wolf Pack on the level of the national elite, not just the mid-major elite.
2. Southern Illinois Salukis (11-2)
The Salukis are the class of the Missouri Valley, as far as I am concerned. I love the composition of this team, with a number of talented players who seemingly thrive on playing defense. Jamaal Tatum, the Salukis’ most recognizable player, is a versatile star with the ability to run the point and play off the ball. Forward Randal Falker is my favorite player on the team, though, as he is an outstanding rebounded and defender. When Tony Young, whom some saw as the Salukis’ MVP last season, finally starts heating up on the offensive end, as I believe he will, this team will be a very tough match in the tournament.
3. Memphis Tigers (10-3)
Let me start out by saying that Memphis will be at least top 10 next year provided no one stupidly declares for the draft . Chris Douglas-Roberts has elevated his game, and is moving toward star status. Willie Kemp, Antonio Anderson, and Andre Allen give John Calipari three players capable of running the offense and keeping that tempo high. However, it’s the depth of the Tigers that should scare teams. Calipari has 10 players averaging over 10 minutes per game, and the return of center Kareem Cooper only strengthens the team's depth. This team is stacked with athletes and Calipari has another great team down in Tennessee.
4. Butler Bulldogs (13-1)
Butler stormed into the national conscious by winning a tournament expected to be UNC’s opening statement. Just as quickly, the media darlings dropped out of the national spotlight. Why? I can’t tell you. A.J. Graves, Mike Green, and Julian Betko still give the Bulldogs a great backcourt with the ability to light up from the outside. You can try to call the hot start a fluke, but Butler has done nothing to give that thought any truth. Granted, the Bulldogs have not played nearly as difficult a schedule lately, but they must still be considered a force come March.
Enough of the mid-major talk, Michigan looked awful at times against Georgetown. A team stacked with experience and talent should be performing at a higher level than the Wolverines did Saturday… West Virginia beating Connecticut didn’t surprise me. The Mountaineers were a very tough first challenge for the young Huskies, and John Beilein’s unique style of play is difficult to match up against if you’ve never seen it… If the Hoosiers could find another reliable big man to go with D.J. White, they’d be a much better team. Against Ohio State, White struggled mightily when guarded by Greg Oden. Indiana, as is, will continue to struggle against upper-level competition… Here's to Greg Oden for kncoking down 9-10 free throws with his off hand against Indiana. Has Shaq ever hit 9-10 free throws with his normal shooting hand in a game?... Bill Walker disappointed me in his national television debut. Shooting 4-14 and fouling out is not the way to announce your arrival to the nation. It seemed like he was uncomfortable on the perimeter, which would be a problem on the next level… I won’t lie, I was very surprised that Clemson managed to beat Florida State in Tallahassee… Bringing it back to mid-majors for a moment, Wichita State’s recent downslide has to be one of the bigger surprises of the past few weeks. After beating LSU, Syracuse, and George Mason on the road on route to a 9-0 start, the Shockers have lost each of their past four games. It doesn’t get much easier soon, with Bradley and Missouri State coming up next on the schedule…… Hope you had a good New Years, 2007 promises more great college basketball.
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