Forces, Frauds and Fruitcakes: Sorting Out NCAA Basketball, Part Two
It is time to look at the next batch of conferences in this series that honors the true forces in NCAA basketball, the fruitcakes who like to play Jekyll and Hyde, and the frauds that have been exposed (or are in the process of being exposed) as overrated.
This edition examines the Big Ten, Big XII, CAA, and Conference USA. The analysis continues to move in alphabetical order to avoid any charges of bias.
For complete definitions and a thorough look at the ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, and Big South, click here. To quickly wrap up what has already been discussed, I've provided the following table, with a couple of sentences for the conferences not already examined in-depth.
America East: Vermont (FORCE), Binghamton (FRUITCAKE), Albany (FRAUD)
Oddly enough, Vermont has lost to both Albany and Binghamton, but remains the most talented team in the conference. Binghamton earned wins over Rutgers and Tulane, but also has losses to awful teams. Albany defeated both Vermont and Binghamton, but don't be fooled. They followed the wins up with losses to Maine and Stony Brook.
ACC: Duke (FORCE), Maryland (FRUITCAKE), Boston College (FRAUD)
Atlantic Sun: E. Tennessee St. (FORCE), Jacksonville (FRUITCAKE), Mercer (FRAUD)
Mercer opened the season with wins over Alabama and Auburn but has been sketchy ever since.
Atlantic 10: Xavier (FORCE), Massachusetts (FRUITCAKE), Dayton (FRAUD)
Big East: Connecticut (FORCE), Notre Dame (FRUITCAKE), Villanova (FRAUD)
Big Sky: Portland St. and Weber St. (both are 1/2 FORCE, 1/2 FRUITCAKE), Montana (FRAUD)
Portland St. scored one of the biggest upsets of the season (over Gonzaga), but will fight Weber St. (who have already beat the Vikings 80-66 on the road) for the conference title.
Big South: No FORCE, including VMI; Liberty (FRUITCAKE), Radford (FRAUD)
Moving on to today's analysis, first up is the (sigh) Big Ten. This should be fun.
Big Ten Conference
THE FORCE: Michigan State Spartans (15-3, 5-1)
Michigan State remains at the top of a conference literally full of fruitcakes. You can call them the banana bread, if you want.
The Spartans didn't exactly cement their status with a loss to Northwestern, but don't forget that they rolled off 10 straight victories before the upset, including impressive wins over Illinois, Kansas, Ohio St., Minnesota, Penn St., and Texas.
THE FRUITCAKE(S): Penn State Nittany Lions (15-5, 4-3) and Northwestern Wildcats (10-6, 2-4)
Okay, I admit that I could have practically picked a name out of a hat. I simply couldn't write this article with only one Big Ten fruitcake; let's just say the papers from the hat stuck together. Of all the teams I could have chosen, these two truly befuddle me.
While teams like Minnesota, Illinois, and Purdue were certainly candidates, their losses have been mostly understandable. The Nittany Lions, on the other hand, have losses to Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Temple to go with their win over Purdue.
Northwestern looked to be joining Iowa and Indiana in the cellar of the Big Ten, until they pulled off a win over Minnesota and a road stunner over Michigan State. Good luck placing bets on any team in this conference. Save your money.
Either team could finish anywhere between third and ninth in this fruitcake conference.
THE FRAUD: Michigan Wolverines (13-6, 3-4)
The Wolverines edge out Wisconsin and Ohio State in this category, partially because they have lost to both teams. Even worse for Michigan fans, their hopes rose for a surprise season after an early-season upset of then No. 4 UCLA coupled with a shocker over No. 1-in-waiting Duke.
That upset feels like years ago, and the UCLA win has lost some of its luster as the Bruins slip down the rankings.
The Wolverines are young, and it hasn't helped that DeShawn Sims seems to have lost his shooting touch. The defensive lapses and inability to hold leads against mediocre teams bode poorly for the immediate future.
Losses to Maryland and Wisconsin, in addition to three straight conference losses, exposed significant weaknesses.
Facing six more games against currently ranked teams, including a tilt with No. 3 Connecticut, means that Michigan may struggle to finish as anything more than a quintessential bubble team at best.
Big XII Conference
THE FORCE: Oklahoma Sooners (18-1, 4-0), featuring Blake Griffin
This may sound ridiculous, but Oklahoma has to be one of the most overrated 18-1 teams I have ever seen. The Sooners keep playing close contests against teams with far less talent, but fortunately for them, they just keep winning those games.
Depending on how things shake out, their rather weak non-conference slate may very well cost them a No. 1 seed in March.
Oklahoma struggled mightily with Nebraska, Texas A&M and Kansas State, but looked strong in dismantling Texas and is handled Baylor rather easily.
Blake Griffin is the true force here, more so than the Sooners as a team. He averages 22 points and 14 rebounds a game while shooting .635 from the field (including .500 from behind the arc), and he may be pulling away in the race for Player of the Year.
THE FRUITCAKE: Kansas Jayhawks (14-4, 3-0)
The Big XII has their share of fruitcakes much like the Big Ten, but Kansas edges out Texas, Texas A&M, and Missouri.
It should be noted that Kansas has played much more like a "force" of late, but their youth and inexperience makes it likely that there will be more stunning losses like those the Jayhawks have already suffered to Massachusetts and Arizona.
The Jayhawks beat fellow fruitcake Tennessee in early January but were clearly outclassed at Michigan State in a 75-62 Jan. 10 loss.
Kansas has one of the easiest schedules in the Big XII, with just one matchup each against Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma. Expect a couple more surprising losses for the Jayhawks, though they should earn a decent seed in March.
Starting a freshman, two sophomores, and two juniors, Kansas is a prime candidate for a first or second-round tournament upset.
THE FRAUD: Nebraska Cornhuskers (12-5, 2-2)
Nebraska's highest-quality win is a 56-51 home victory over Missouri, which isn't saying much. The Huskers also have embarrassing losses against UMBC, Iowa State and Oregon State.
Really, they shouldn't be so embarrassed. Despite the bandwagon getting crowded after wins over Missouri and Kansas State and a hard-fought loss to Oklahoma, the Cornhuskers are more likely to finish very near (or below) Iowa State in the bottom half of the Big XII.
Texas A&M (15-4, 1-3) better get it together quickly, or they may be joining Nebraska in this category soon.
It is highly unlikely that Nebraska will reach beyond the NIT come March.
Colonial Athletic Association
THE FORCE: Virginia Commonwealth Rams (15-5, 8-1)
In a month, this team has moved from Fruitcake to Force. I originally had George Mason (14-5, 7-2) slotted here but the Rams held on in a head-to-head matchup Saturday to knock the Patriots from their perch atop the CAA.
VCU grabbed their seventh straight victory after an embarrassing two-point loss to Delaware.
As goes senior guard Eric Maynor, averaging 23 points and six assists, so go the Rams. With some pretty bad losses (East Carolina, Delaware, at Rhode Island, at Vanderbilt), VCU will need to win the conference tournament to assure themselves a bid to the NCAA tournament in March.
George Mason, with losses to Hampton, Liberty and Northeastern, find themselves in exactly the same position.
THE FRUITCAKE: Northeastern Huskies (12-6, 7-1)
The Huskies play some of the best defense in the CAA and have scored upsets over George Mason and Providence. However, they could only manage 37 points in a loss to South Florida and just 48 in a blowout loss to Memphis.
Are they the team that beat Hofstra by 23 at home or the team that lost to Hofstra by seven on the road?
Good luck figuring that out. Their next three games (at Old Dominion, at VCU, Delaware) will help sort out whether Northeastern is more Jekyll or Hyde.
Keep your greenbacks in your wallet if you're thinking about a wager.
THE FRAUD: Old Dominion Monarchs (11-7, 4-4)
I really thought ODU would challenge for the CAA title yet again this year, but I was wrong, and it is only going to get worse for the Monarchs. They are the only team that plays the current top-four teams in the CAA twice each, meaning several more losses are on the horizon.
They will likely continue to beat CAA bottom-feeders like UNC-Wilmington and William & Mary, but don't have the depth or talent to compete with VCU and George Mason.
Wins over Charlotte, Richmond, and Duquesne, along with a seven-game winning streak in December, have proven fraudulent, with losses to Georgia State, Bucknell, Marshall, and James Madison now on the record.
The once-mighty Monarchs are not likely to earn even an NIT bid, but hopefully, this program won't stay down long.
With only one senior on the team (none who start), coach Blaine Taylor will continue rebuilding this program until it returns to the perennial contender status it enjoyed from 2004-2008.
The 2008-09 season could mark the first time ODU fails to make a postseason tournament (they made the CBI quarterfinals last season) since 2003-04.
THE FORCE: Memphis Tigers (16-3, 5-0)
Perhaps the weakest of all "forces," Memphis pulled out a victory over Tennessee on Saturday to maintain this designation in a generally weak conference. Still, Memphis has zero bad losses (Xavier, Syracuse, at Georgetown), a 10-game winning streak, and a stunning 47 consecutive conference win streak.
This year, that streak says more about Conference USA than it does Memphis.
Memphis recently returned to the top-25, but nail-biters against Tulsa (a game they should have lost) and Central Florida show how vulnerable the Tigers really are.
Their defense remains stout, but the offense is questionable, led by Tyreke Evans, who is shooting a mediocre .453 from the field. In fact, no starter averages even close to .500 from the field and only two reserves (including Preston Laird, who averages less than half a shot per game) have hit that mark.
With games remaining against Tulsa, Tulane, UAB, UTEP, and second-place Houston (twice), Memphis is bound to have their streak ended soon.
THE FRUITCAKE: Tulsa Golden Hurricane (12-7, 2-2)
This is one of the most confounding teams in the nations and for that, they edge out UTEP and UAB for the fruitcake designation.
I picked them to upset Memphis a couple of weeks ago and they did. That is, until the final seconds when Tulsa allowed a Tiger opponent to slice through them like a hot knife through butter and lay in the game-winning bucket.
The Golden Hurricane play the best defense in Conference USA, but two one-point losses to Memphis and Tulane keep them from having a perfect 4-0 record.
They successfully shut down Illinois' offense in a four-point November loss, gutted Charlotte and impressively defeated Texas A&M, but also own an inexplicable 12-point loss to Ohio University.
Tulsa is dangerous but unless they find more offensive production from someone other than Ben Uzoh, they won't be able to challenge Houston and Memphis for the CUSA title.
Tulsa's next two games are tonight's matchup at UTEP and a home game with UAB. In true fruitcake style, the Golden Hurricane will likely earn a 1-1 split.
THE FRAUD: UTEP Miners (11-7, 2-2)
Although UTEP handed WCC power St. Mary's their only loss of the year back in November and lost by just three to current No. 1 Wake Forest, the Miners have since proven to be very mediocre.
Disappointing losses to Houston and UAB indicate they are not yet ready to compete for a conference title. Worse yet, their resume includes losses to New Mexico State and Santa Clara.
The team that was once thought to be second-best in CUSA (after UAB lost several players to academic suspension) now appears headed for a mid-tier finish that at best will send them to the NIT.
Looking ahead to the next edition of FF&F, it will be time to examine several mid-majors of interest. Included will be the Horizon League, the MAAC, the Missouri Valley, and the surprising Mountain West Conference. I look forward to hearing your opinions, as always!
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