Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Taking Stock of the Second Tier

As we enter mid-December, let's take another look at the pecking order of things right now. Up top, there is Eastern Washington, who has established itself as the early favorite for now. It feels similar to Northern Colorado last year... the upstart that looks ready to challenge for the title, so it will be interesting to see how things hold up. After that, I still think Weber State is second right now... despite their flaws and youth, they have so much talent that they'll be in the race.

But my interest today is those teams that sit behind those two, in the three through eight spots, where you could seemingly draw names out of a hat for an order right now. Let's take a look at those teams, not necessarily in any specific order.

- According to KenPom, Montana is actually the second best team in the conference right now, which would be a surprise to the coaches that picked them eighth before the year. They have been beat handily by good Colorado State and San Francisco teams on the road, and other than that have played very good basketball. The latest win was over a perennially good North Dakota State team, and they also took Boise State to OT and Cal to two OTs.

Their strength so far has actually come defensively, as they have done a good job of forcing turnovers, and (somewhat surprisingly) rebounding opponent misses. Martin Breunig has been a monster, shooting over 60%, rebounding on both ends, and blocking shots. The scary part is I don't really think their offense is clicking as well as expected yet - if that clicks and their defense continues to be solid, they will be in the Big Sky race.

- Another entrant into the race is Northern Colorado, who is behind only EWU in the Big Sky in offensive efficiency.  Against DI opponents, they have a top 20 turnover percentage, and they are shooting 57% on twos. While that is not sustainable, they are getting quality shots and they have the talent to continue to get them. They have nine guys that play at least 39.5% of the team's minutes, while only one guy plays over 60%, so they are tough to gameplan for because they can hurt you in a lot of ways. They still struggle defensively - and they have sent opponents to the line far too often - but if they can shore that up, they're a contender. Of course, they have struggled in that area the past few years, but they have enough offensive firepower to make some noise.

- Many people thought Portland State and Sacramento State would be right up there (including myself on Sac State), but both have been up and down. PSU has the opening win over USC, but they have been a bit uninspiring other than that, culminating in a 26 point road loss on Saturday to UC Riverside (who, coincedentally, is Sac State's lone inspiring win). The Vikings have struggled in stopping anyone this year - Their 1.07 PPP allowed is 328th in the country... They have to improve that if they want to be a serious contender.

Sac State is 4-3, but they haven't played that many meaningful games. The losses to Gonzaga and UC Irvine are understandable, but an 11 point loss to Abilene Christian could be a warning sign. Part of the optimism there was from the presumed improvement from Eric Stuteville, but he has struggled mightily so far in the post. They have the guards to compete, but so far, the frontcourt is again providing very little.

- Northern Arizona has played a tough slate with some difficult roadtrips, but I am sure internally they hoped to be a little better than 2-6. They have been a solid defensive team, but they've struggled to score, with just 0.95 PPP. They aren't getting to the FT line, and they aren't getting many easy buckets. Everyone benefited from Max Jacobsen last year, and while they have talented guys replacing him, they miss his offense early on. Newcomer Jaleni Neely is taking three-point specialist to a new level... he is a solid 40% from deep, but just 4/24 inside the arc.

- Idaho is another team that has the offensive firepower to compete, it's just a matter of whether or not they will get enough defensive. They have some nice wins over South Dakota State, UC Davis, and Washington State, though mixed in is a confusing home loss to Northern Kentucky. Guard Mike Scott continues to play like a POY candidate, excelling in all areas, while Connor Hill is heating up after a relatively slow start. They are a fun, fast paced team that is going to win a lot of Big Sky games, and their addition makes the conference better. Now, they just need to find a way to stop allowing easy baskets, as opponents are shooting over 55% on two-pointers against them.

How do you see the order of these teams?

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