While overused, the phrase “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” is really applicable to college basketball. With the longest season of any college sport, and with most teams non-conference slate not meaning much in the long run, how teams play in February and March is much more important than November.
But that doesn’t mean these early season games aren’t important, or interesting. It’s interesting to see how teams are evolving as the young season moves forward, and we’re already seeing some teams are struggling to adjust. What can a bad free-throw shooting team, for instance, do to really improve? How much can you teach a defender over the course of four months? These are the challenges facing head coaches as we near the transition to December.
East Tennessee State (2-4, Atlantic Sun) at Tennessee Tech (3-4)
7:00 p.m. CST
It’s rare when a sub .500 team has a quality defense, but that appears to be the case with the Buccaneers. ETSU currently ranks 91st in the nation (and tops in the Atlantic Sun) in defensive points per possession, despite a 2-4 record. They’ve been in all six games they’ve played this year, and a few key bounces could have the Buccaneers with a much better record.
As you could probably guess, the offense is where things fall apart somewhat. Turnovers have been a problem for ETSU, coughing up the ball 15 times a game, among the bottom 30 in the nation. They have just a pair of true three-point shooters (although both Kinard Gadsden-Gillard and Rashawn Rembert are shooting 44% on the year from behind the arc) and aren’t a particularly big or deep team, with just seven guys seeing action in some games this season.
Turnovers are also a major issue for the Golden Eagles, who lost two of their last three games despite outshooting their opponents from the field. Jeremiah Samarrippas has especially struggled, turning it over three times a game. It should be noted, this was somewhat of an issue last season as well, but was somewhat masked by other offensive issues. Ty Allen has been a huge boon to the Golden Eagles attack, and JUCO transfer Dawn Caldwell is coming off four-straight double-digit scoring nights. While this team is nowhere near the offensively handicapped team of last year, they’re not looking like a team I’d take in a shootout.
Tennessee State (0-6) at Auburn (3-1, SEC)
7:00 p.m. CST
Did Auburn join the OVC, and I didn’t get the memo? Auburn is playing their third game against an OVC opponent just five games into the year, having already notched wins against Murray State and Jacksonville State. The win against the Racers didn’t become particularly easy, although they were helped by the Racers tragic combination of poor free-throw shooting and committing too many fouls.
While it’s worth noting Auburn hasn’t exactly played an SEC quality schedule so far, Chris Denson is absolutely on fire. Through four games, Denson is hitting 61% of his shots, and averaging 21.8 points a game. Not to be called a ball-hawk, the Auburn senior is also averaging a career high 3.3 assists per game, and also pulling down six rebounds a contest. These numbers will almost certainly come down once Auburn faces, I dunno, teams on their level, but they’re still quite impressive none-the-less.
After an unimpressive start to the season, Jay Harris appears to be stepping up a bit to provide some assistance to Patrick Miller in the backcourt. After 10 combined points in the first four games of the year, Harris has scored 12 in each of the last two contests. A lot of people expected more from the junior this season, and they’re going to need him, (or someone, anyone really) to step up for this team to start having success.
And yes, I will continue harping on that point until it happens.
Middle Tennessee State (4-1, Sun Belt) at Murray State (2-3)
7:30 p.m. CST
The Racers haven’t been sub .500 at any point of the season in the past six years. They’re winless against Division I competition so far this season, and don’t face a team with a losing record until they host Southern Illinois on December 17th. It’s not been the start that anyone hoped for, although I’d be hard pressed to say it’s not the start many expected.
Murray State cannot get out of their own way. Jonathan Fairell and Terron Gilmore are averaging a foul every three-and-a-half minutes they’re on the floor. That means, on average, they’ve fouled out after 18 minutes. For a team with just eight scholarship players eligible to play, you simply can’t afford for that to happen, and keep happening. On the other end, Murray State has been simply atrotious at the free-throw line, hitting just 63.9%. That being said, they’ve been in all their Division I losses, and you could make a reasonable argument they could have won those games if it weren’t for these issues.
An interesting note from Monday? Head coach Steve Prohm told the media at his weekly press conference that the new rules aren’t to blame for the Racers early season foul woes, rather his team just wasn’t in position. While many might write this up as Prohm being politically correct, if you’ve seen this team play, it’s really hard to argue with what Prohm’s saying.
SIU Edwardsville (1-5) at Oregon State (2-1, Pac 12)
10:00 p.m. CST
SIU Edwardsville is playing their fourth game in five days. Oregon State hasn’t played one in the past 10. I’m going to guess the Beavers might be a bit more rested than the Cougars, as they complete their West Coast swing.
If there was a team you could argue is better than their record, SIUE might be it. They’ve been in every game on this road trip, but simply have not been able to hold on to second half leads. What we’ve seen, though, is that this team, especially on offense, is light years ahead of last year’s squad. Tim Johnson, who finished last season strong, has continued that into this year. Bradley transfer Donivine Stewart is off to a solid start, averaging 14 points a game. And SIUE is playing well despite less than stellar performances from guys like Michael Messer and Kris Davis. If those players get back to where they were during their peaks over the past two years, you’ve got to like what’s building in Edwardsville.
Of course, no one can really compare to Oregon State’s Roberto Nelson. The 6’4 senior is averaging 30 points a game through the first three contests of the year. He averaged 17.8 last season, so everyone knew he was a scorer, but those are scary numbers, even given it’s only three games in a nearly 30-game season. If, for some reason, he has an off game, there’s also Devon Collier, who put up 29 in a win against Maryland.
Brescia (NAIA) at Belmont (6-1)
7:00 p.m. CST
DON’T BE CAUGHT LOOKING AHEAD TO VCU, BELMONT! DON’T DO IT!