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TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...EARLY DECEMBER MID-MAJOR LOOKOUT!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


As the 2014-15 college hoops season swings into its second month of action, we have had ample time to peruse the mid-major landscape. And, as usual, we think we might have found a few nuggets that might be flying under the radar and could provide good spread value as we progress through December and prepare for conference cage action to swing into gear next month.

We've also identified a handful of teams that could be false alarms, which is often the case due to watered-down non-conference schedules.

Thus, here's the early season mid-major update, in conferfence alphabetical order, identifying the occasional potential overvalued side as well as teams on the ascent. Be on the lookout for these teams in the coming weeks...

AMERICAN: Sorry to offend fans of the American who might bristle at the "mid-major" label. After all, loop member UConn did win the national title last April. But league membership has been fluid, with teams joining the loop since last year, many of those still with very much having a mid-major look. Tulane...The Wave's early 6-1 SU mark has gained some notice. That's partly because HC Ed Conroy has 90% of his offense back from last season, and Tulane is scoring nearly 80 ppg thru the first month while shooting nearly 50% from the floor, led by Conroy's three-pronged G attack featuring jr. Louis Dabney (13 ppg). But the Wave's early schedule has been soft (only three of first seven on the board), and Tulane failed its toughest test to date when whipped by Wake Forest, 71-49, in the opener. We're not ready to "buy" yet on Tulane. UCF...Another potential false alarm in the early going, the Knights, like Tulane, have been able to benefit from a very marginal early slate to win five of their first six games. Remember, UCF is still in heavy rebuild mode for HC Donnie Jones after losing its three top scorers from last season, and the schedule was intentionally downgraded early to give the new roster time to ferment. Encouraging has been the shooting at a 49.8% clip, which ranked 21st in the country thru Dec. 3, and hometown Orlando frosh product B.J. Taylor (team-best 13 ppg) has taken advantage. But the Knights have not covered their only two games to appear on the board and were hammered in their toughest test vs. Davidson on Nov. 26. As with Tulane, we're not biting yet on UCF.

ATLANTIC 10: Davidson...It looks like the Wildcats might make a smoother adjustment to their new A-10 alignment than many believed. Vet HC Bob McKillop lost three key contributors from last year's 20-game winner in the SoCon, but has reformulated the Davidson mix and has the Wildcats running as they did in the Steph Curry years. Davidson is scoring a whopping 86.5 ppg (8th nationally), with holdover Gs Tyler Kalinoski and Jack Gibbs (both better than 15 ppg) now joined by electric 6-7 frosh swingman Peyton Aldridge (11.7 ppg; also nearly 6 rpg and hitting 50% of his triples) as part of a dynamic, uptempo attack that has been able to stretch the margin on several lesser foes. Due to this firepower, we would not be reluctant to lay points with the Cats vs. some of their upcoming foes, though the slate will begin to upgrade when conference play begins next month. St. Bonaventure...The Bonnies have flown under the radar before, but such is our respect for shrewd HC Mark Schmidt that we always keep an eye on what is going on at Olean. Schmidt's latest creation features several new components, including sweet-stroking juco SG Marcus Posley (team-leading 15 ppg) and whippet-like 5-11 frosh G Jaylen Adams, while another juco, Iskeem Alston, is making an impression at the point. With enough of Schmidt's holdovers (such as jr. F Dion Wright and last year's high-profile juco, 6-4 G Andell Cumberbatch) stepping into more-featured roles, the Bonnies warrant some attention in the next few weeks. At 5-1 SU, and with handy wins covers vs. nearby foes Niagara and Buffalo (noteworthy because the underdogs in these regional Western NY matchups have historically fared well), Bona could provide more value against a series of upcoming beatable foes before A-10 play commences in January.

BIG SKY: Eastern Washington...The Eagles and respected HC Jim Hayford (a disciple of Azusa Pacific's NAIA coaching legend Bill Odell, under whom Hayford worked from 1990-99) look as if they might be the team to beat in a wide-open Big Sky, which has a vacuum at the top of the loop after graduation losses and the departure of HC Wayne Tinkle (to Oregon State) have downgraded recent loop power Montana. EWU, competitive in recent years, might be stepping into that breach, as Hayford's uptempo attack is scoring 85.3 ppg and shooting an astounding 54.2% from the floor (ranking fourth nationally). Lots of offense featuring returnees G Tyler Harvey (21 ppg; last year's Big Sky scoring champ) and 6-7 PF Venky Jois (19.6 ppg), who are without a doubt the best 1-2 scoring punch in the Sky. The Eagles already notched an easy cover at SMU and opened plenty of eyes with an outright win at Indiana (which raised the temperature a few degrees beneath Tom Crean's hot seat). EWU has several more "board" games upcoming for the duration of December before Sky action begins in January. The Eagles also have an "all-name" candidate (we always like to highlight those) in Las Vegas product frosh G Sir Washington, who is seeing about 10 minutes of action per game in the early going. Remember, those Big Sky games are readily available in Las Vegas sports books as "extra" games on the board.

BIG WEST: UC Davis...We don't have to talk about the Aggies any longer as just hoping to get noticed by UCD alum Kimberly Guilfoyle. Now, UCD appears to be a legitimate team to watch in the Big West. The Aggies have broken 6-0 SU from the gate with a collection of wins over mostly similar-level opposition, along with an eye-opening 77-70 home victory over Stew Morrill's always-tough MW rep, Utah State. Head coach Jim Les returned both of his top scorers, prolific G Corey Hawkins (son of former NBA player Hersey Hawkins, a college teammate at Bradley of HC Les; 18.2 ppg; 56% beyond arc) and F Josh Ritchart (12.3 ppg), while 6-6 UC Riverside transfer F Josh Fox (10 ppg) has added another scoring option to the Davis mix. Defense was an issue last season for the Aggies, who allowed nearly 49% FGs and almost 80 ppg, but stop end upgrades have contributed to the fast start. As long as Hawkins and Ritchart can stay healthy, Les likely keeps the Ags in the Big West mix. And Ms. Guilfoyle is welcome to give us a call to talk about her favorite college team.

CONFERENCE USA: Old Dominion...Several warning shots have already been fired by the Monarchs, a Big Dance regular up until a few years ago when the program collapsed under HC Blaine Taylor. Now, former Virginia and American U HC Jeff Jones has not only stabilized the situation in his second year on the job, but has ODU poised for a breakthrough, as the recent 73-67 upset over VCU would indicate. And avoiding a potential letdown in their next game, Jones' troops won and covered on the road at George Mason. Earlier, in the Virgin Islands Tourney, the Monarchs beat LSU. ODU is doing a lot with its defense, which hasn't yet allowed over 69 points. The Monarchs returned most of their firepower from last season, including a stacked backcourt featuring last year's C-USA second-leading returning scorer Aaron Bacote (15.5 ppg last season), though in the early going it has been Campbell Camels transfer G Trey Freeman (18.4 ppg) who has emerged as the sharpest edge on attack, and greatly helps an offense that needed another go-to threat to emerge beyond Bacote after the team produced just 64 ppg a year ago. Rugged PF Richard Ross also plays much bigger than 6-6 and is a defensive force on the blocks, while George Mason transfer sr. G Jonathan "Roone" Arledge has improved the depth at Jones' disposal. Remember, ODU improved by a nation's best 13 wins last year (to 18-18) in Jones' first season, and the proud history of this program suggests the recent downturn was probably just a blip on the college hoops radar screen.

HORIZON: Valparaiso...Midwest sources believe HC Bryce Drew has his alma mater poised to make a run at the Big Dance. The Crusaders, who tailed off at the end of last season, have started fast and generated some buzz with their recent romp through the Music City Challenge in Nashville, cruising through a representative field consisting of Drake, Murray State, and Portland. Now 8-1 SU, and with the only loss at Missouri in the second game of the season, Valpo has not lost since and also has four spread covers on the trot after Wednesday's win at Eastern Kentucky. The Crusaders are shooting better than 49% from the floor, and 6-8 soph F Alec Peters (19.4 ppg) has been on a recent rampage. But the big boosts for the Crusaders have been juco G Darien Walker (12 ppg) and frosh G Tevonn Walker (10 ppg) who have added an extra sharp edge to the attack and prevent defenses from devoting too much attention to Peters. Valpo could be the team to beat in the Horizon.

MID-AMERICAN: Eastern Michigan...Former Jim Boeheim disciple Rob Murphy (now in his fourth year at EMU) has done a pretty good job mimicking the 'Cuse in Ypslianti, down to the controlled tempo and Boeheim-like zone defense. And this might be a better Eagle edition than last year's 22-win outfit that made it to the second round of the CIT. Murphy, who has been able to lure several impactful transfers the past few years, has an especially deep bench, with ten players averaging double-digit minutes, with three returning double-digit scorers led by all-name G Raven Lee (15 ppg) and former juco F Karrington Ward (14 ppg). One of the transfers, ex-DePaul G Jodan Price, has a green light to shoot from whenever he enters the game (though he's only hitting 23%). EMU has kept all foes save go-go Oakland (which bowed 89-77 to the Eagles) to 62 points or fewer. The schdeule is going to get much harder in December (Dayton, Michigan, and Michigan State are on deck), but Murphy's Syracuse imitators should not be overlooked.

MISSOURI VALLEY: Evansville...Flying a bit under the radar are the Purple Aces, who have been on our secondary watch list since the beginning of the season. E'ville returns all five starters for HC Marty Simmons, including prolific-scoring G D.J. Balentine (last year's top Valley scorer at 22.8 ppg; 19.8 ppg thus far in the new season), who paces an offense shooting an astounding 54% from the floor. Moreover, Villanova transfer G Mislav Brzoja has added another scorer to the mix. There is good spacing on the floor with 6-10 Egidijus Mockevicius (14 ppg) a force to be reckoned with on the blocks and preventing too much attention being paid to Balentine and the others out on the perimeter. Note that the Aces are not particularly three-point crazy, shooting only about 13 triples pg, with Balentine is more at home careening into the paint. Only setback to date for Simmons' team was a close 64-62 loss to Horizon co-favorite Green bay at the recent Gulf Coast Challenge in Estero, Florida, where the Purple Aces also beat Fresno State and San Francisco.

MOUNTAIN WEST: Colorado State...Last week's win at the Great Alaska Shootout and subsequent home success at Moby Arena vs. Tim Floyd's combative UTEP have kept the Rams unbeaten into the second week of December. Larry Eustachy's shrewd offseason roster additions are already paying dividends, with 6-7 NC Central F Stanton Kidd (14 ppg) and his non-stop motor already making positive contributions at both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, after the offseason transfer of G Jon Octeus, Eustachy hurriedly filled the gaps in the backcourt, with one-time Ole Miss signee and juco G Gian Clavell (11 ppg), plus UALR transfer G John Gillon (50% beyond arc), filling the post-Octeus gap and then some, adding extra dimensions to the perimeter around former Arizona transfer Daniel Bejarano (16.3 ppg LY, 13 ppg thus far in the new season as he shares a bit more of the scoring responsibilities). Meanwhile, 6-7 former Navy transfer PF J.J. Avila (15.3 ppg) is an oak on the blocks who led CSU in scoring (16.6 ppg) and assists (3.4 pg) last season. Wyoming...Larry Shyatt's Cowboys have broken quickly from the gate the past two seasons, only to be sidelined by injuries and ineligibilities along the way. For the moment, however, all looks good in Laramie, especially with do-everything 6-9 F Larry Nance, Jr. (15 ppg) back from last year's knee injury and looking as good as new. And there is plenty of experience in the backcourt with Denver-area products Riley Grabau and Josh Adams in their third year playing alongside one another. Most astounding is Wyo's 54.7% FG shooting, which ranks second in the country, and credited much to the shot selection demanded by Shyatt. The Cowboys served notice in a home beatdown of Pac-12 Colorado on Nov. 22 when limiting the Buffs to just 9 points in the second half of a 56-33 Wyo win, confirming that Shyatt's defensive schemes remain state-of-the-art. What we want to watch in the next few weeks is how Wyo performs away from Laramie, where it played its first seven games (all wins). Upcoming games at SMU and Cal should tell us a bit more about the Cowboys, but so far, so good in Laramie.

WEST COAST: Portland...WCC sources report that this could be HC Eric Reveno's best team in his nine seasons on The Bluff. The Pilots made some noise last season with wins over BYU and Gonzaga, and might be ready to make more of an impact this season. Early efforts have been encouraging, including wins over Drake and Murray State at last week's Music City Challenge in Nashville, and a comfy midweek win over local rival Portland State, which was the fourth cover in the past five spread decisions for Reveno's team. The Pilots have plenty of balance (four DD scorers), including a new bombs-away threat, 6-6 frosh G D'Marques Tyson, a Seattle-area product who escaped Lorenzo Romar at U-Dub and has electrified the fans enjoying the marvelous sightlines at the Chiles Center, hitting 58% from the floor and scoring almost 11 ppg while averaging only 12 minutes of playing time. Mason's 25-point effort in Portland's lone loss (vs. Valpo in the Nashville tourney) opened more eyes and will doubtless prompt more minutes from Reveno moving forward. There is plenty of experience on hand for the Pilots, too, as 6-5 sr. swingman Kevin Bailey (13. 1 ppg; 16.5 ppg LY) has already been established as one of the top swingmen in the WCC, while soph G Alec Wintering is a bombardier canning 56% of his triples in the early going. Most encouraging, however, might be the improvement of 6-10 Ukrainian import C Volodymyr Gerun, who is more than tripling his previous scoring (up to 10.7 ppg) and rebounding (up to 6 pg) and providing Reveno a potential twin-tower presence alongside 6-11 Dutch product sr. Thomas van der Mars (10 ppg). Coast observers believe this is a very intriguing roster mix at Reveno's disposal, and upcoming games vs. Oregon State and UNLV could provide opportunities for the Pilots to further burnish their credentials.


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