<
>
Insider

Three mid-majors to keep an eye on

12/18/2008

At this time of year, most college sports fans are focused on the football bowl picture. Therefore, hoops news has to be of the big, bold and shocking variety in order to make an impact. Anything short of VMI beating Kentucky, UMass squeaking by national champion Kansas, Temple destroying Tennessee or Cleveland State's miracle buzzer-beater at Syracuse is probably going to end up buried on Page Seven.

So you might have missed these solid performances by teams that haven't made any big national noise. But these three squads are putting together unexpectedly spectacular seasons, and may have even knocked off one of those headline-grabbers listed above. We're not saying they'd beat Kansas or Tennessee, but it's possible that some of these teams might just end up winning its league and getting a shot at the big boys in the Big Dance.

Evansville (Missouri Valley)

Former Purple Ace Marty Simmons, a two-time all-MVC forward, returned to Evansville last year as a head coach. He tried to instill a sense of Evansville history by outfitting his team in the famous sleeved uniforms for a December game, and the Aces were blown out of their own building by Indiana State. That happened a lot during a 9-21 campaign, the school's ninth straight losing season. But the team may finally be worthy of the sleeves, with a 7-1 start that includes a stunning 72-40 win over Western Kentucky last Saturday, a team that had beaten both Louisville and Georgia. Last year's backcourt of Shy Ely and Jason Holsinger has returned as seniors to combine for 29.7 ppg, but the difference has been a much improved interior defense. Could the Aces be this year's Drake, coming out of nowhere to win the Valley to snap a legacy of losing? If they can at least hang around against No. 1 North Carolina on Thursday, Creighton and Illinois State better watch out.

Jacksonville State (Ohio Valley)

Over the summer, the OVC school from Jacksonville, Ala., relieved Mike LaPlante of his duties after eight seasons. This year was supposed to be the first step of the rebuilding process after a 7-22 season, the third single-digit win total in the last four tries. But new bench boss James Green,who coached at Southern Miss and then led Mississippi Valley State to the SWAC title last season, has achieved instant results. The Gamecocks have already equaled last year's win tally with a 7-1 start, matching the school's best start in the last 27 years. With a new crop of solid midsize specimens that includes freshmen Brandon Crawford and Geddes Robinson, Jax State's list of victims includes Kentucky-killers VMI (a 95-67 shutdown on Nov. 29) and a 75-74 road win five days earlier at Massachusetts, a team that went on to beat Kansas. It would be advisable to guard the Gamecocks on the perimeter, where they're shooting 42.3 percent from 3-point land.

Niagara (Metro Atlantic)

Most conversations about the MAAC have centered around Siena so far, and expectations are high in Albany after last season's upset of Vanderbilt in the NCAA first round. But the Saints' old upstate rival is in position to reclaim the league throne it abdicated after claiming the 2007 title. Charron Fisher, who scored 2,599 points during his Purple Eagle career, is gone, but Niagara's new generation has picked up his points. With a pair of trickle-down transfers from the Big East in Bilal Benn (Villanova) and Rob Garrison (UConn), Niagara is playing at the same high speed of years past but has put up an impenetrable perimeter defense, allowing just 26 percent of opponents' treys to fall. The result is a 7-2 start, highlighted by a 70-55 road win at South Florida. And the Purple Eagles have already served notice in the MAAC with a 16-point win at Loyola (MD) in a mid-December league preview.