NCAAB False Alarms

NCAAB False Alarms

False Alarms?
The Gold Sheet

They appear every year in college hoops, "surprise" teams that suddenly catch everyone's attention after running up a string of victories that mostly occur under the radar. Like always, however, the key is to determine if these teams have staying power...or are just false alarms. Following is a brief rundown of those early-season surprise packages of note, and a "false alarm forecast" for each. Straight-up records thru December 8.

Seton Hall (7-0)...The Pirates have yet to take a deep breath in racing to their 7-0 start, but even diehard Hall supporters are withholding judgement until the schedule starts to toughen up. As of now, the Pirates' most impressive win was an 89-79 success at Cornell, and naysayers will point to a narrow 53-51 win over local Catholic rival St. Peter's in the season opener. But there is reason for encouragement, too, as HC Bobby Gonzalez has the proper ingredients to employ the uptempo style he prefers, with jr. G Jeremy Hazell (19.9 ppg) one of the more electric performers in the Big East. An unexpected bonus has been 6'8 New Mexico State transfer F Herb Pope, who has already recorded five double-doubles and is really providing Gonzalez with some presence in the paint. The next major test will be December 19 vs. Temple, but we'll know soon after whether the Pirates are for real, as conference action commences December 26 against 6th-ranked West Virginia, with 7th-ranked Syracuse right on the Mountaineers' heels three days later. FALSE ALARM? Maybe.
   
UNLV (7-0)...Mountain West observers sense something special brewing at the Thomas & Mack Center, as early indicators are that HC Lon Kruger has developed a nice chemistry with this year's Rebels that went missing a year ago. Sources believe there was some internal friction between last year's seniors (particularly G Wink Adams) and a couple of the newcomers, specifically Memphis transfer Tre'Von Willis, on that 21-11 team. But there's been no evidence of that in the early going as the Rebs have already taken down capable Southern Illinois, Louisville, and Arizona (the latter on the road). Swingman Willis has even assumed a leadership role, and along with 6'6 Kentucky transfer Derrick Jasper and 6'7 UCLA transfer Chace Stanback has given Kruger the sort of "tweeners" that create matchup headaches. Kruger has also been tapping into a very deep bench, going 11 deep in some early games, and has been getting serviceable work from rotating "bigs" Darris Santee, Brice Massamba, and David Shaw, something that was missing from last year's smallish team. FALSE ALARM? Probably not.

Texas Tech (9-0)...After some wondered if Pat Knight might be in some hot water in Lubbock after last year's 14-19 mark, the Red Raiders have stormed out of the gate this season with their best start in eight decades. Along the way Tech scored one of the most exciting wins of the young season with a 99-92 overtime upset of 12th-ranked Washington, a night in which the Red Raiders thought they had won the game on Mike Singletary's running jump shot at the buzzer, only to see the refs overrule the bucket and call Tech out of its locker room to play an overtime. In which the Red Raiders simply beat the Huskies again, with Singletary and junior G John Roberson (who scored 25 points) doing the most damage. Tuesday night's 80-70 win at an improved TCU was another step in the right direction, giving Tech more confidence that it can win on the road. Beyond Washington and, to an extent, TCU, the schedule hasn't been too daunting early, and we're still not sure about the Red Raiders' ability to produce points in the paint (although Singletary and Roberson are established threats). Early signs are encouraging, but with no soft touches appearing in the Big XII this season, how quickly Knight finds some points in the middle could determine if the Red Raiders can indeed get back into the Big Dance mix. FALSE ALARM? Doubtful.

Illinois State (7-0)...The Redbirds have stayed unblemished to this point mainly due to a very soft non-conference schedule that might not have been a bad idea for HC Tim Jankovich, breaking in eight newcomers on this year's roster. But it won't help ISU if it is fighting for NCAA at-large consideration in March (it didn't help a year ago, either, when the Redbirds lost in the Valley Tourney finals vs. UNI and was sent to the NIT instead) and has not helped the profile of the Missouri Valley Conference, whose higher-ups are concerned that ISU's cupcake non-league slate (which includes no schools from BCS conferences) might negatively impact the loop's power rating. Two of those newcomers, jucos F Tony Lewis and G Austin Hill, have been making nice contributions in the early going, although the offense still flows through sr. G Osiris Eldridge, who at 20.3 ppg and an eye-opening 50% from the floor is a top candidate for Valley MVP honors. Jankovich is nonetheless looking for improvement from a defense that has allowed foes to hit 42.5% from the floor in the early going. A December 19 battle at Utah figures to be the stiffest non-Valley test, and league play opens December 29 in Normal vs. another early Valley surprise, Wichita State. FALSE ALARM? Perhaps.

Missouri State (7-0)... Another early-season surprise in the Missouri Valley, the Bears (at least through seven games) look nothing like last year's team that lacked scoring punch and depth and stumbled to an 11-20 record. So far, Mizzou State has been just the opposite, looking very capable on the attack end (74.6 ppg & 48.2% from the floor). A big boost has come from Eastern Kentucky transfer G Adam Leonard, hitting nearly 50% of his triples in the early going and providing a nice scoring complement to holdover Kyle Weems. Another transfer, 7'0 C Caleb Patterson (via Colorado), is scoring 10.5 ppg off the bench. As for Weems, he's hitting 53% from the floor (compared to 38% as a frosh last season). The early slate has been loaded with home games, and 2nd-year HC Cuonzo Martin has used that to help blend in the seven newcomers on his roster, but comfy wins over capable Auburn, Tulsa, and Air Force are nonetheless making Valley observers take notice. FALSE ALARM? Possibly.
   
New Mexico (8-0)...Nobody was expecting much from Steve Alford's Lobos, picked to finish in the middle of the Mountain West pack. And maybe that's where they'll end up, but for now New Mexico is riding high and looking good in the process. Replacing the three leading scorers from last year's 22-12 NIT team looked a tall order, but Alford has filled in nicely with 6'7 juco Darrington Hobson, who seemed a potential go-to option at the outset but has emerged as a definite go-to man by scoring a team-best 18.7 ppg and hauling down 8.4 rpg in the first 8 games. Most of all, however, Hobson has blended well with returnees F Ramon Martinez and Gs Dairese Gary and Phillip McDonald. Meanwhile, 6-8 soph C A.J. Hardeman appears much improved over last season. The schedule gets a bit tougher in the coming weeks with Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Dayton all on deck, but the Lobos served notice in their recent win at The Pit over well-regarded Cal that they have enough firepower to trade points with any of them. FALSE ALARM? Unlikely.

Charlotte (7-1)...HC Bobby Lutz' 49ers sent a warning shot to the Atlantic 10 when pasting Louisville by 22 at Freedom Hall December 5. Although beaten by 42 at Duke earlier in November, Lutz' troops have rolled off five straight wins since, and bruising 6'6 Boston College transfer Shamari Spears has been nothing short of a revelation, tallying nearly 20 ppg and being named A-10 Player of the Week in late November. Spears is providing a go-to threat in the paint that last year's 11-20 49ers lacked. Lutz has also lit a fire underneath sr. PG DiJuan Harris, who has responded to the presence of freshman Derrio Green by posting some impressive numbers (including 10.5 ppg && 4.8 rpg) in the first month. Green (8.3) has also been contributing as a combo guard. We'll know more about Charlotte before A-10 play swings into gear, with upcoming tests vs. Old Dominion, Georgia Tech and Tennessee in the next few weeks. FALSE ALARM? Probably not.

Saint Mary's (6-1)...Most WCC observers figured the Gaels would be taking a step backwards this season after the early departure of Aussie PG Patty Mills and the graduation of 4-year standout F Diamon Simpson. But underestimate HC Randy Bennett at your own peril, as he has brought in some more ringers from Australia (namely 6-4 frosh G Matthew Dellavedova, scoring 13.9 ppg) and fields one of the most imposing frontlines in the nation with a pair of 6-11 seniors, Omar Samhan and onetime Indiana transfer (and another Aussie) Ben Allen. Moreover, PG Mickey McConnell (who's hitting 60% beyond the arc!) saw extensive action a year ago when Mills was out with injury, and 6'4 swingman Wayne Hunter remains a versatile threat. There's a good blend of young and old on the team, too, with Samhan, Allen, and Hunter all seniors. The Gaels have already pounded New Mexico State and San Diego State in Moraga and have won on the road at Utah State, not an easy place to play (especially considering the Ags had SMC circled as a revenge game after losing in last February's Bracket Buster). Only a close 2-point home loss vs. solid Vanderbilt from the SEC has blemished the Gaels' early-season mark. FALSE ALARM: Don't think so.

William & Mary (6-2)...Mid-Atlantic sources are liking what they are seeing from the Tribe, which slid back to a 10-20 mark last season after making slow but steady progress in HC Tony Shaver's first five years on the job. Now off to their best start since the 1992-93 campaign, William & Mary might have established itself as one of the Colonial's teams to beat with last Saturday's pulsating 75-74 win over VCU, rallying from a 14-point deficit in the second half to do so. Senior G David Schneider (18.1 ppg) has an awkward-looking but effective jump shot and has emerged as one of the CAA's top threats, and complements his scoring with exceptional board work (6.5 rpg) for a backcourt performer. The Tribe has a bit of size with 6'8 Danny Sumner & 6'9 Marcus Kitts, though both play a bit smaller and neither is a classic post-up threat. But in a league like the CAA without a lot of quality size, that shouldn't hurt the Tribe too much. After close losses to begin the season at UConn and Harvard, W&M has reeled off six straight wins, including noteworthy upsets over Richmond & Wake Forest. FALSE ALARM? Maybe not.

Other teams to watch: Richmond (6-1), Pacific (6-1), UW Green Bay 8-2), Wichita State (7-1), Ole Miss (7-1), Northwestern (6-1), La Tech (7-1), UAB (8-1).

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