Wednesday December 30th, 2009

Think nonconference games don't matter? The NCAA selection committee begs to differ. Because what happens in November and December doesn't stay in November and December, here's a look at some of the early season's most interesting games (and why they'll impact March Madness).

Nov. 14

Cornell 71, Alabama 67

Yes, the Crimson Tide is rebuilding, but Ivy teams don't usually go to SEC country and win -- and then have the SEC team remark how much bigger the Ivy team was inside. Cornell subsequently has won at UMass and St. John's and, if it can take continue to take care of business, could land the Ivy's highest NCAA seed since 1998, when Princeton was a 5.

Nov. 16

Kentucky 72, Miami (Ohio) 70

John Wall's collegiate debut ... and his first buzzer-beating game-winner. Kentucky won a game it probably would have gacked in the last couple of seasons, threw off some bad vibes, realized immediately what it had in Wall, and now is solidly entrenched as a projected No. 1 seed entering conference play.

Cal State Fullerton 68, UCLA 65 2OT

If you watched this game, what came soon after -- UCLA getting crushed by Portland and losing to Long Beach State -- shouldn't have surprised you. The Bruins were expected to be rebuilding, but yeesh. Then again, with the Pac-10 not packing a ton of pop, Ben Howland still has a chance to get things right in 2010.

Nov. 17

Kansas 57, Memphis 55

Bizarro rematch of the 2008 national title game. KU missed some free throws and Memphis had a last-second 3 (which missed). An early wake-up call for the top-ranked Jayhawks (they haven't really been threatened since) and evidence that, with Duke transfer Elliot Williams, Memphis will be a C-USA factor.

Nov. 19

Syracuse 95, California 73

Cal was shorthanded, but still ... wow. The Orange's MSG coming-out party continued the next night when a huge second-half run tapped out North Carolina. Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson is a stud. Despite losing Jonny Flynn and two others early, the Orange are a viable 1-seed and national title threat.

Dayton 63, Georgia Tech 59

This opening-round win at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off is the type of win the Atlantic 10 needs, and was a disappointing drop for the Yellow Jackets, a preseason buzz team. The Flyers have been laying low since losing their final two in that event, to Villanova and Kansas State, in close affairs. Need a non-football alternative for New Year's Day? Dayton at New Mexico is chock full of NCAA profile punch.

Nov. 21

VCU 82, Oklahoma 69

Impactful for several reasons: 1) Exposed Oklahoma's limitations, which were further illuminated in Alaska; 2) Kickstarted a strong VCU run that has included wins over Nevada, Rhode Island and Richmond; 3) Should drive every mid-major AD to include the mandatory home-and-home provision in their coach's contract, like VCU had in Jeff Capel's, which forced the Sooners into this true road game.

Sacramento State 65, Oregon State 63

Hyped as a burgeoning program, the Beavers dropped to 1-3 with a dreadful home loss to Sac State, which hadn't won on the road since like 1873. This was the, um, headliner on a night that exposed the frailty of this season's Pac-10. The league went 0-3, with WCC teams not named Gonzaga or Saint Mary's doing the rest of the damage (USC lost at home to Loyola Marymount and Oregon fell at Portland).

Nov. 23

Purdue 73, Tennessee 72

A nice little power check for the Boilermakers, who remain unbeaten and are more than living up to preseason expectations. The Boilers went on to dispatch Wake Forest in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. What's that? A home date with West Virginia on New Year's Day? Maybe Dayton-UNM can wait...

Nov. 26

Texas A&M 69, Clemson 60

Sometimes, it's the hidden meaning beyond "winning a game against an ACC team" that matters. In this case, the opening-round win in the 76 Classic got the Aggies a game against West Virginia (big RPI points despite the loss) and then a third-place game against Minnesota that they won by a point. All in all, a big resume-building weekend in Anaheim was set up by this Thanksgiving night victory.

Nov. 27

Florida 77, Michigan State 74

A surprising win for the Gators at the time, this game is starting to carry (to paraphrase an old colleague) an "air of fraudulence" for both teams. The Spartans haven't found their full stride yet and the Gators dropped three straight, all in the state of Florida, to Syracuse (no shame at all), Richmond (sneaky good A-10 club) and South Alabama (OK, that's a bad home loss).

Duke 68, Connecticut 59

The Blue Devils beat Arizona State and then the Huskies to take the NIT Season Tip-Off title with two gritty defensive efforts -- maybe an option that wasn't as available to the last couple of Duke squads. Jon Scheyer's playing well as the de facto point, but you wonder how this team would look with Elliot Williams as an option.

Nov. 29

Clemson 70, Butler 69

A last-seconds loss capped a meh weekend in SoCal for the Bulldogs, and really is a microcosm for a season in which Butler hasn't yet hit all cylinders for any significant stretch of time. The Bulldogs are still formidable, but this may indeed be the "year before the year" for the still youthful Horizon kings.

Dec. 1

Northwestern 65, N.C. State 53

The Wildcats had just beaten Notre Dame and Iowa State, but this road win in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge really made you take a second look at a team that was expected to compete for NCAA consideration but lost center Kevin Coble (again) for the season. They haven't lost since, although we'll know more after the first two Big Ten games -- tonight at Illinois and then Saturday vs. Michigan State.

Dec. 3

Texas Tech 99, Washington 92 OT

This type of nonleague win is key to the recipe of how to make the NCAAs when you're a mid-table team in a major conference. The Red Raiders get six conference shots at teams currently in the RPI top 20 (at Kansas, home to K-State and home-and-homes with Texas and A&M) and the Big 12 currently sits second in conference RPI. Nick a couple of marquee wins and get above .500 in league play and you're golden. (Note: This formula also applies to Baylor, Texas A&M, and about 20 other teams nationwide).

Dec. 4

Pittsburgh 47, New Hampshire 32

The halftime score was 15-7. That set a shot clock-era record for offensive futility. Thank heavens for Ferg Myrick, or this could have been much worse for the Wildcats. Also, kudos to UNH coach Tom Herrion for correctly opining afterward that the next day's Pitt-Cincinnati football game could be higher scoring. It's about the only shot New Hampshire hit all night.

Dec. 5

Ohio State 111, Eastern Michigan 60

The score and opponent are irrelevant. This is the game where national POY candidate Evan Turner fractured his back falling after an attempted dunk. The Buckeyes lost their next game, to Butler, without him and now open up conference play with four of their first five on the road. We'll see how the Buckeyes stand when Turner comes back, and what kind of consideration the committee will give them.

Kentucky 68, North Carolina 66

More for the sound check on the Heels, who played a brutal nonleague schedule, beating Ohio State, Nevada and Michigan State and losing to top-five teams Syracuse, Texas and Kentucky. If this were the NBA, Roy Williams would anxiously be looking to deal some frontcourt depth for a standout guard. The Heels are growing, but the lack of perimeter potency will continue to be a problem against elite teams.

Wake Forest 77, Gonzaga 75

A really solid road win, although aided considerably by the flagrant foul ejection of Gonzaga's Elias Harris late in the first half when Gonzaga led by nine. Wake turned the sequence into a seven-point play (shooter fouled on a 3 plus two flagrant foul free throws plus possession). We'll find out all we need to know about the Deacons in the next three weeks. They still have nonconference testers against Richmond and Xavier and then are at Duke and UNC back-to-back in mid-January.

Dec. 8

Georgetown 72, Butler 65

The Hoyas hadn't really played anyone since edging Temple in a low-scoring grinder almost a month earlier, so this was a solid win at MSG. It also provided the contrast between a team that's thriving in because its big man is playing very well (Greg Monroe) and one that hasn't reached expected heights because its big man has struggled and been foul-prone (Matt Howard). Now if G'town would just stop playing ODU at McDonough...

Dec. 12

Kansas State 95, UNLV 80

There's no true marquee win yet for the Wildcats, but this road win wrapped a strong three-game run past Washington State, Xavier and the Rebels that firmly established K-State's bona fides. Right now, Jacob Pullen and the 'Cats are one of the stories of the season. We'll see what conference play brings.

Saint Mary's 81, Oregon 76

When's the last time a mid-major inked a 2-for-1 with a major-conference team and won all three games? Former Gaels coach Ernie Kent OK'd the deal three seasons ago to help SMC celebrate the 10th anniversary of Kent's 1997 NCAA Tournament team. The Gaels won that game (Patty Mills' coming-out party) and then won the next two years in Eugene. The rub: The WCC could be a two-bid league again.

Western Carolina 91, Louisville 83

Western may well end up being the SoCon's NCAA rep, but this wrapped an ugly back-to-back for the shorthanded Cardinals after they were crushed at home by Charlotte a week earlier. Unless Louisville beats Kentucky on Jan. 2, the Cards will have absolutely nothing in their nonleague profile to lean on.

Dec. 13

Temple 75, Villanova 65

As our under-25 readers would say, er, type: "o rly??" The Owls ended Nova's three-year romp through Philly's Big 5 and add the Wildcats to a profile that has wins over Virginia Tech and Seton Hall (as well as the aforementioned one-point drop to Georgetown). Head coach Fran Dunphy has reloaded Temple in three-plus seasons while his former program, Penn, which won 10 Ivy titles in Dunphy's 17 seasons there, is 0-8 and fired its head coach the day after this win. (Yes, I'm a bitter Penn grad.)

Xavier 83, Cincinnati 79 2OT

It might sound like heresy, but here's a vote for the Crosstown Shootout as the best pure rivalry game in college hoops (yes, above Duke-UNC, which happens 2-3 times a season, not once, and is too blueblood to reach UC-XU levels of player and fan hostility). The intensity in this series is unreal and the games are almost always dramatic, regardless of any quality differences between the teams. This season's edition, featuring a near brawl, was no exception. It also could end up being a crucial result come March.

Rhode Island 80, Boston College 69

Yeah, Harvard had just won at BC (for the second straight season), but this wrapped up a Rams sweep of regional bigwigs (Providence, too). URI is a two-point loss at VCU away from being perfect at this point and is one of maybe six A-10 teams that has legitimate at-large hopes entering league play. URI has an important game before that, though -- at Mohegan Sun Arena against Oklahoma State.

Dec. 19

Richmond 56, Florida 53

This win in Florida was crucial for the Spiders, who finished a tough week where they couldn't hold leads at VCU and South Carolina and needed this win to validate earlier neutral-site Ws against Mississippi State and Missouri. Funnily, Richmond is 2-1 vs. the SEC and 1-2 vs. the CAA.

Texas 103, North Carolina 90

The Longhorns, at least from this vantage point, showed off why they are the deepest and most talented team in the nation. In this game, they had four 20-point scorers while hanging the first "regulation 100" on Roy Williams at North Carolina. They also grabbed 29 rebounds ... on the offensive glass. Anyone interested in Kansas at Texas on Feb. 8?

USC 77, Tennessee 55

Tennessee's worst loss of the Bruce Pearl era looked awful until USC subsequently went to Hawaii and beat Saint Mary's and UNLV to win the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas. That four-game run corresponds with the arrival of well-traveled PG Mike Gerrity. Coach Kevin O'Neill also is starting to make an imprint. In USC's current six-game winning streak, the Trojans have not allowed more than 56 points. And look who comes to the Galen Center on Thursday: Arizona! Mmm ... coach revenge.

Duke 76, Gonzaga 41

About as big a beatdown as you can get between two top-15 teams on a neutral court (albeit at "Cameron Square Garden," Duke's home-away-from-home) and the Blue Devils' more defensive bent continues to develop. Whether this says more about Duke or Gonzaga will be answered over the next couple of months.

Butler 69, Xavier 68

One of the 'xanier' endings of the season, featuring a 35-second final possession in which Xavier almost forced a turnover three or four times and a clock stoppage that led to Butler's winning layup with under two seconds left being declared the final play of the game. Xavier routed LSU Tuesday night and has another chance to make a nonleague statement Saturday at Wake Forest.

Dec. 21

UTEP 89, Oklahoma 74

The Miners added Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter to the lineup five games ago, and he's had double-doubles in his last four. Adding a wide-body to a lineup featuring dynamic guard Randy Culpepper and some balanced scoring behind him, and UTEP will be a serious factor in a wide-open C-USA ...

Dec. 22

UAB 69, Butler 59

... along with the Blazers, who have beaten Cincinnati, Florida-slayer South Alabama and the Bulldogs by double digits in their last three outings. UAB sits at 11-1, with a loss "@ Kent." Even though that's Kent State, not Kentucky, expect the Blazers to be a strong at-large contender if they don't get the auto bid.

BYU 110, Nevada 104

Also known as "Not Pitt-UNH: How to shoot 59 percent and lose." BYU's Jimmer Fredette had 33 points, apparently just warming up for his 49-point blowup against Arizona. The only thing tougher than fitting the Cougars into a projected bracket? Defending them. In its last four games, BYU has shot 139-227 (61.2 percent) from the floor and 35-68 (51.5 percent) from 3-point range. For the season, the Cougars are fifth in D-I in effective FG% and 13th in turnover rate. That's a devastating combo. BYU opens MWC play at home against UNLV on Jan. 6. Yes, please.

Bonus feel-good story ...

Dec. 28

NJIT 65, Wagner 56

Wagner has a really nice facility on Staten Island and has had some quality teams earlier this decade, but the Seahawks got swept in a home-and-home by a team that went 1-59 over the last two seasons. This was NJIT's first road win since Feb. 19, 2007. Congrats to coach Jim Engles and trusty assistant Ira Bowman, who have vastly improved the Highlanders' defense and made them more competitive (even though they remain horrific offensively). They'll win some more games in the debut season of the Great West conference.

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