(WPRI) – The slowest time on the college basketball calendar is almost behind us. The last two weeks of December are primarily about finishing up first semester classes and getting a few days home for the holidays. The extended time off allows for rest and recovery before all teams jump into the second half sprint of their season. January and February will be a blur. With two NCAA Tournament hopefuls, and a surprising team which could reach their conference postseason for the first time, there’s a lot to digest before the year ends.
With that, let’s get to the latest WPRI College Hoops Column.
Thoughts and observations are below. You can always reach out via email firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @MHershgordon. Let’s keep everything rational. It’s still the holiday season.
Record: 10-3 (2-0 Big East)
Last: 103-98 2OT win over Marquette
This Week: Visit Butler Dec. 29 at 6:30 p.m., Visit DePaul Jan. 1 at 2:30 p.m.
Plain and Simple: The Friars are putting themselves in position to be in position
It’s been mentioned before in this column that the pressure is on the Friars to perform in the Big East considering their weak non-conference resume. Here’s an excerpt from the most recent column:
“The game (at Seton Hall) has a similar feel to last year’s conference opener at UConn. PC grinded out a hard-fought road win, then came home and won the home opener and then went out to the Midwest and earned a split to begin 3-1. Cloning that start from a season ago would be ideal for this group. A record of 12-8 in league would put the Friars at 20-11 overall and should be enough to go dancing. It’s time to go make it happen.”
The Friars are following the script. Now it’s time to see if they can get greedy. The Midwest swing is never easy and most of the time team’s are happy with a split. For PC, if they can get Thursday’s game at Butler — which is no easy task — then it sets them up with an opportunity to start 4-0 with a win on New Year’s Day at DePaul. If that scenario plays out, PC will position itself very well for the NCAA Tournament. A 4-0 start would afford PC the luxury of going just 8-8 in their last 16 games. That would put them at the 12-win mark and on the right side of the bubble heading to Madison Square Garden.
Hard Truth: Friars need a reliable backup for Ed Croswell
Ed Croswell is enjoying his best stretch of college basketball. He’s scored in double figures in eight of last nine games including consecutive 20-plus point outings to open the Big East. Though Ed Cooley needs to establish a reliable reserve off the bench, much like the role Croswell filled a season ago behind Nate Watson. Like last year, there will be games when the starting center gets in foul trouble or has an off night, or in some cases the guy off the bench just flat out plays better. It all happens over the course of a season. At times, Cooley has shown frustration with Clifton Moore’s lack of toughness and also has been reluctant to play redshirt freshman Rafael Castro for long stretches (Castro has played only six minutes in each of the first two league games. That’s 12 minutes out of a possible 90). The lack of trust in a backup big is two-fold. First, Cooley will be forced to ride Croswell for longer stretches. Right now, Croswell is averaging a career-high 25 minutes per game which is trending to reach 30 by March. Second, and most importantly, is that Bryce Hopkins will rarely get a chance to rest. The Friars can certainly get away with this formula, however I’ll be watching closely to see if the high usage rate eventually catches up to them 10-15 games from now.
Last: Game cancelled vs. Milwaukee due to COVID-19 issues
This Week: Visit Duquesne Dec. 31 at 1 p.m.
Plain and Simple: Two-week layoff should help the Rams
As frustrating as it was to have a COVID pause and cancel a home game, the extended break should aid Archie Miller’s Rams. They’re able to do a complete audit of the program and gear up for Atlantic 10 play as they look to play spoiler for the next few months.
Hard Truth: Start of conference play much tougher than originally expected
In September, a glance at the first few Atlantic 10 games were thought to provide the Rams a chance to grab a couple early wins. That’s not the case anymore. In addition to Rhody’s struggles, Duquesne and Fordham are the only teams in the league to win double digit games. The Dukes are 10-3 with a Big East win and Fordham is 12-1 with their lone loss coming at 10th ranked Arkansas.
Last: 69-59 win over Towson
This Week: Host Binghampton Dec. 31 at 1 p.m.
Plain and Simple: Bulldogs set Division I program record
With their win over Towson last week, Bryant notched nine non-conference wins for the first time in its Division I program history. And the success on the floor has led to more national attention. The Dogs road game at Vermont on Jan. 5 has been flexed to national television. The game will now air live on ESPNU in a matchup of the preseason No. 1 and No. 2 teams. It’s rare Bryant gets a national TV game during the regular season. It is certainly well-deserved.
Hard truth: Players responded well to adversity
Following poor performances and a shortened Midwest road trip at the beginning of the month, the Bulldogs’ championship DNA was put to the test multiple times in recent weeks. They responded by winning three of their final four OOC games. First, they handled Stony Brook at home and then edged Manhattan on the road in a high-scoring overtime affair just 48 hours later. After falling off a cliff in the second half against Liberty, head coach Jared Grasso said he challenged his guys in the film room and on the practice floor the week leading up their OOC finale against Towson. Grasso quipped that his team needed to improve their daily habits. In front of a nice crowd, the Bulldogs responded with one of their most complete 40-minute efforts of the season with a win over the CAA preseason favorite.
Last: 67-51 win over New Hampshire
This Week: Visit Northwestern Dec. 29 at 1 p.m.
Plain and Simple: Brown has improved the most of any team from the beginning of season
The tangible results are evident. From 0-3 to 7-5. That’s seven wins in their last nine games which includes a buy game at Michigan State. More than wins and losses, Mike Martin and TJ Sorrentine have gotten the most out of their role guys. Malachi Ndur has flourished the last few weeks. The 6-foot-8 junior is giving the Bears six points and 5.3 rebounds in just over 20 minutes of action per night. He filled in nicely when Nana Owusu-Anane was sidelined. With Owusu-Anane back in the lineup, the Bears can feature a more explosive frontcourt that owns length and athleticism and will continue to bottle up the paint. Martin mentioned it following the win over New Hampshire. With Ndur, Martin can go roll out a lineup with Kalu Anya at the three, Ndur at the four and Owusu-Anane at the five.
Hard truth: Bears deserve more attention
A trip to Northwestern concludes the non-conference portion of the slate. Once the calendar flips to 2023, Ivy League play begins. Bruno welcomes UPenn to the East Side on Monday Jan. 2 at 7 p.m. In fact, five of the first six conference games are at The Pizz and all are either on a national holiday or a Friday or Saturday night. The Bears, aka ‘State Champs’, deserve the eyeballs for the time being.