Each week until March Madness, I’ll be taking a broad look at trends and faces on the national college basketball scene, with notes from around the country and a quick look at the best games coming up. The feature may run some weeks in the print edition, but the plan is for it regularly to be on the blog late Wednesday or Thursday. We’re calling it the College Hoops Hangout.
Somebody on a national website this week cast out — tongue only partly in cheek — the possibility of Syracuse and Michigan State meeting in the NCAA tournament. In the First Four.
That’s right, two purebreds with relatively recent national titles, meeting on Tuesday night in mid-March in Dayton, effectively for the right to make the tournament.
If that happens, it will have something to do with the strange phenomenon of 2014-15, of unheralded – in some cases, unknown – programs having pulled monumental upsets of big-name teams.
New Jersey Tech beat Michigan. Texas Southern, which had lost by 40 to Gonzaga a few nights earlier, won at Michigan State. Yale took down intrastate brother – and defending national champ – Connecticut. Incarnate Word (before you ask, it’s in San Antonio) upended Nebraska, which went to the NCAA tournament last year.
Stony Brook came 3,000 miles and hung a shiner on Washington.
“I think generally the level of play has come down quite dramatically in those top 30-40 programs for a variety of reasons,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said this week on the ACC teleconference, referring to a period of years. “Certainly guys leaving early is the reason always mentioned.
“There’s more pretty good players out there, who, when you watch them play, you say, ‘That guy could play for us.’ Louisiana Tech (which lost a two-point game to Syracuse) had two or three guys that could certainly play for us. You have a bad night, one of those teams can beat you.”
The big underdog might catch a power team coming off finals week, or after an emotional game, or off a tough trip. Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins says he used the upside-down results of the early season as a cautionary note with his team.
“There’s a lot of parity,” Dawkins said. “You’re not just going to throw the ball up and expect to win. You have to respect your opponent always. It’s tough out there. Everybody’s good.”
Well, not everybody. But if you’re not careful, there could be a sneaker in any schedule.
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar compares the leveling in college competition to how the international game narrowed the gap on the U.S.
“The schools that aren’t as high-profile are able to have older kids,” he said. “They’re not intimidated.” Postulating, he said, “They went to the (NCAA) tournament two consecutive years, and they’ve got all these guys back and they’re very confident they can beat anyone.”
Two possible effects in March: The teams that leave their NCAA-tournament profile to chance may find those unexpected losses an anchor on their resumes. And, 30 years into matchups of No. 1 seeds and 16s, maybe this is finally the time for the ultimate NCAA-tournament upset. It hasn’t happened yet.
* Washington transfer Martin Breunig has found success at Montana (5-7). His 17.4 scoring average is fourth in the Big Sky and his field-goal percentage (.625) is tied for No. 1.
* Kyle Collinsworth of BYU, coming back from a serious knee injury last March in the WCC tournament, has three triple-doubles, one from the NCAA record of four in a season. Four share that mark, including Jason Kidd of Cal in 1993. In Collinsworth’s case, it helps that BYU is the nation’s highest-scoring team at 88.3 points a game.
* Dan Monson, the Long Beach State coach, took his team (6-10) on its annual pre-conference death march through college basketball’s elite. In a three-week December stretch, the 49ers lost at San Diego State, Texas, St. John’s, Syracuse and Louisville.
* Todd Bozeman, who coached Kidd at Cal and was later exiled by the NCAA for paying thousands to the father of a recruit, returned to the Bay Area as coach at Morgan State Tuesday night against St. Mary’s. Asked by the Oakland Tribune what he’s learned, Bozeman said, “Don’t skip steps. Be true to the craft. You’ll always be recruiting somebody and he’s a must-get kid. But it’s not a life-and-death deal. There will be another player.”
* Remarkably, Old Dominion, which has made the occasional splash in the NCAA tournament, is in the AP Top 25 for the first time.
* On the way to a long domination of the Big 12, Kansas has won 23 straight conference openers, 13 on the road.
Games of the week
Thursday night, Oregon’s reworked roster hosts Arizona at 7:30 on Pac-12 Networks.
Two good games highlight Saturday’s card in the ever-expanded ACC: No. 5 Louisville at North Carolina (18) at 11 a.m. (ESPN) and No. 3 Virginia at Notre Dame (13) at 3 p.m. (ESPN2), in a meeting of Tony Bennett and Mike Brey. It was Bennett’s 2008 WSU team that horse-collared Brey’s Irish to gain a spot in the Sweet 16.
Mel Counts, Oregon State (1963-64) 29
Benoit Benjamin, Creighton (1984-85) 27
Lew Alcindor, UCLA (1967-68) 26
Willie Naulls, UCLA (1955-56) 25
Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati (1958-59) 23