College Basketball Nation: Utah State Aggies
Utah State forwards Sean Harris and Jalen Moore are determined to prevent that outcome. This week, they staged a minor social media campaign to ensure their mutual love of hair received the proper amount of attention.
So: Best hair in hoops? That's a strong contender, but we need to process a few other prospective applicants before we go handing out any awards. (In other words, submit via Twitter.)
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Who believes that they will win?
There are no shortage of interesting storylines in the Mountain West this season. Boise State's breakout. The post-Steve Alford era at New Mexico. The intriguing talent at UNLV. Wyoming's emergence under Larry Shyatt. Another Larry, Larry Eustachy, and his first real rebuilding year at Colorado State. When a league has been this good, pound for pound, in recent years, it is bound to offer plenty to talk about.
And yet, despite the bevy of options at hand, Utah State's arrival is my favorite -- for all the reasons you expect, and one you might not.
First, the basics: This season marks the Aggies' first in the MWC, the product of a realignment move away from the decimated WAC. The Mountain West spent a solid portion of the past few years sweating out realignment in the Pac-12, Big 12 and Big East; there were some scary moments here and there. But it emerged relatively intact, and with a couple of traditionally strong hoops newcomers to boot. The first, Nevada, joined the league last season. The second, and by far the most exciting, was Utah State. (San Jose State arrives this season too, but that's a slightly different discussion.)
Why? Because Utah State has, in 15 seasons under Stew Morrill, become one of the country's most reliable, least heralded mid-major attractions. The past two seasons have been tough, pockmarked by personnel transitions and injuries, but before that the Aggies rattled off four straight WAC regular season crowns (in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011). Utah State went to the NCAA tournament six times in the past 10 years, and that number would probably be higher if Morrill's teams (and the WAC's RPI) didn't scare away so many putative high-major scheduling partners. That's a big part of why Utah State's move is so exciting: The Mountain West will give Morrill a full slate of quality opponents for the final two months of each season, sunsetting his scheduling woes once and for all. It's a major development.
It also sets up what might become the best pure student-section rivalry in all of college basketball. Let me explain. At Utah State, fans chant "I I believe I believe that we will win." It's genuinely rousing. For a minute there, it was sort of the Aggies' thing. But then The Show, San Diego State's famously raucous student section, appropriated it. Or maybe they had it first. Either way, the Aztecs' higher profile has made the chant synonymous with SDSU, and I've had both fan bases email me claiming to own the thing.
Never mind that the chant actually began at Navy. (Womp womp.) At some point this season, San Diego State fans and Utah State fans are going to be in the same building. At some point, whether it's in Logan, Utah, or Viejas Arena, one fan will start with "I I believe " I have no idea what will happen after that. I just know there's going to be a showdown, and I bet it will be really funny when it happens.
So, yes: Utah State's move is exciting on pure basketball terms. But it is also exciting because two shouting groups of people supporting different sports teams will now be forced to confront their shared use of a really cool chant. Chaos is bound to ensue.
2. Tyler Roberson isn’t listed on the Syracuse website roster yet, but he has been cleared to play. And that’s great news for Syracuse and the attempt to unseat ACC favorite Duke in the first year of being in the league. "He’s obviously a good player," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim of the 6-7 forward from Union, N.J. "He gives us some depth at forward with C.J. [Fair] and Jerami [Grant]. It gives us three athletic, quick forwards. We’re excited about that." Boeheim said the news Roberson is eligible has bigger ramifications. "Long-range, that’s the key," said Boeheim of a replacement for Fair once he’s done with his eligibility in the spring of 2014. "Next year, he’ll be really, really good by then. He’s a really good player. He’s pretty quick."
3. Utah State has a rarity of hosting two schools from power conferences in USC (Pac-12) and Mississippi State (SEC) in Logan this season -- the first for the Aggies in the Mountain West. The series with the Bulldogs is a two-for-one that coach Stew Morrill wasn’t thrilled with but will do. The Aggies went out to Starkville in 2012 (lost by two), get the Bulldogs in Logan this season after the series took a year off under new coach Rick Ray and will go back next season. The USC game was as a result of the Aggies going to USC -- Sept. 21 -- in football. "My AD (Scott Barnes) asked that if we do that could we get a home and home in basketball," said Morrill. The series was supposed to start last season in Logan but former USC coach Kevin O'Neill said he needed to put it off a year but then would play the opener this season. O’Neill then got fired. "I told him there was a hefty buyout to move it back a year and that the buyout doubled," said Morrill. "Andy (Enfield) got the job, and there was a $150,000 buyout on this game." Utah State opens up with USC at home Nov. 8 and will return the game next season. "People have no idea how hard it is to get games," said Morrill. Utah State has kept the BYU series in Salt Lake City on a neutral court. Utah has put off playing Utah State and Morrill said he would only play the Utes in a home-and-home situation.
Toughest: Colorado (Nov. 30)
Next toughest: Richmond (Nov. 27)
The rest: vs. Army (Nov. 8 in Lexington, Va.), vs. Citadel/WMI (Nov. 9 in Lexington, Va.), Jackson State (Nov. 14), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Nov. 17), Colorado Christian (Nov. 20), South Dakota (Dec. 5), Western State (Dec. 9), UC Riverside (Dec. 14), at UC Davis (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- As in the Falcons get two points for playing Colorado and Richmond at home. Those are nice home games for Air Force. The rest of the slate is weak, but that's OK considering that coach Dave Pilipovich has a rebuilding team. So this schedule matches the current team.
Toughest: at Kentucky (Dec. 10)
Next toughest: Utah (Dec. 3), Saint Mary's (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25 in Honolulu)
The rest: UT-Arlington (Nov. 8), Simpson (Nov. 15), Seattle (Nov. 19), at New Orleans (Nov. 23), Portland State (Nov. 29), Carroll (Dec. 5)
Toughness scale: 5 -- Boise State has a one-way ticket to Kentucky, and that's enough to warrant a decent grade. The Broncos, likely picked second in the MWC, needed to test themselves. The home games against Saint Mary's and Utah will certainly push them as well. Boise State is the potential favorite in Hawaii but will have to get past the hometown Warriors, which is no easy task. Iowa State is a possible finalist on the other side of the bracket. But this tourney could be Boise's breakout heading into the MWC, short of upsetting Kentucky at Rupp.
Toughest: at Gonzaga (Nov. 11)
Next toughest: at UTEP (Nov. 19), New Mexico State (Nov. 30), Colorado (Dec. 3)
The rest: UCCS (Nov. 8), Weber State (Nov. 16), Northern Colorado (Nov. 22), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 25), Bethune-Cookman (Nov. 27), Southwestern Oklahoma State (Dec. 7), Denver (Dec. 11), UIC (Dec. 23), Lamar (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Rams will have quite a chore winning at Gonzaga and UTEP. These are two quality games for Larry Eustachy. Getting New Mexico State and Colorado at home is a huge plus for a team rebuilding after an NCAA tournament run last March. The rest of the slate is fine, considering the inexperience at a number of key positions.
Toughest: vs. Florida (Dec. 21 in Sunrise, Fla.)
Next toughest: at Pittsburgh (Nov. 12), at Utah (Dec. 7), at Cal (Dec. 14)
The rest: at UC Irvine (Nov. 8), Cal State Northridge (Nov. 16), Cal Poly (Nov. 20), San Diego Christian (Nov. 25), Drake (Nov. 29), CSU Bakersfield (Nov. 30), Northern Arizona (Dec. 1), UC Merced (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 6 -- The Bulldogs are still in rebuilding mode, but Rodney Terry put together a rough schedule to get to MWC play. Florida is an elite team. Going on the road to Pitt, Utah and Cal would be tough for most clubs, regardless of what rebuilding stage they were in. The pressure will be on the Bulldogs to clean up the rest at home to ensure there is some momentum going into the conference.
Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29)
Next toughest: at Cal (Dec. 10), Iona (Dec. 22)
The rest: Montana Tech (Nov. 4), Pacific (Nov. 8), at Cal Poly (Nov. 12), at San Francisco (Nov. 15), at CSU Bakersfield (Nov. 18), Chattanooga (Nov. 22), Morehead State (Nov. 24), at UC Davis (Dec. 7), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 14), Long Beach State (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Wolf Pack were stuck at the bottom of the MWC last season, so this is a critical year for David Carter. Nevada has three high-level games, all away from Reno, with two of them in Vegas against Missouri and UCLA. No one would expect the Pack to win any of them, but Carter will test his team with those three. There are plenty of other potential hiccups -- even at home with games like Pacific, Iona and Long Beach State.
Toughest: vs. Kansas (Dec. 14 in Kansas City), vs. Marquette (Dec. 21 in Las Vegas)
Next toughest: Cincinnati (Dec. 7), Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), at New Mexico State (Dec. 4), New Mexico State (Dec. 17)
The rest: Alabama A&M (Nov. 9), Charleston Southern (Nov. 17), San Diego (Nov. 30), Grand Canyon (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The Lobos did an exceptional job of getting quality games away from home like Kansas, Marquette, Cincinnati and the rivalry home-and-home games with the Aggies. If the Mountain West favorites play up to expectations, the Lobos will be well-prepared for the MWC and for an NCAA tourney run. The Charleston Classic also offers a possible power-rating game with UMass in the semifinals, assuming they meet.
SAN DIEGO STATE
Toughest: Arizona (Nov. 14), at Kansas (Jan. 5)
Next toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.), Washington (Dec. 8)
The rest: UC Riverside (Nov. 8), San Diego Christian (Nov. 20), Southern Utah (Dec. 18), McNeese State (Dec. 21), St. Katherine College (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 8 -- This is a quality schedule for Steve Fisher's club. Going to Kansas is as tough a game as any team can get on the schedule. Arizona has become a rivalry game for the Aztecs, and the Wildcats will be one of the best teams in the country. The Wooden Legacy provides elite competition, too, with either Creighton or Arizona State -- two high-level teams -- on the second day. Washington has upper-level Pac-12 talent as well.
SAN JOSE STATE
Toughest: at Santa Clara (Nov. 12)
Next toughest: at Houston (Dec. 7)
The rest: Milwaukee (Nov. 15 in DeKalb, Ill.), at Northern Illinois (Nov. 16), James Madison (Nov. 17 in DeKalb, Ill.), at Pepperdine (Nov. 20), Cal State Fullerton (Nov. 23), at Portland (Nov. 27), at Weber State (Nov. 30), UC Davis (Dec. 18), Westminster (Dec. 21), Pacifica (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 2 -- Going to Santa Clara, an upstart in the WCC, and Houston out of the American will be tall tasks for the Spartans. The first-time MWC member clearly tried to tone down the slate a bit in advance of conference play. But the chances of San Jose State getting high-profile home games is highly unlikely.
Toughest: at Arizona (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Arizona State (Nov. 19), Illinois (Nov. 26)
The rest: Portland State (Nov. 8), UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 12), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 15), Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 30), at Southern Utah (Dec. 14), Radford (Dec. 18), Sacred Heart (Dec. 20), vs. Santa Clara (Dec. 22 at Orleans Arena), vs. Mississippi State/South Florida (Dec. 23 at Orleans Arena)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Runnin' Rebels probably made up this schedule before all of the attrition on the roster. Still, UNLV has a multitude of quality games, with only the Arizona game being away from home. If UNLV wants to make a run in the MWC, it needs to take care of business at home with a schedule that is overwhelmingly prejudiced toward the Thomas & Mack Center.
Toughest: BYU (Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City)
Next toughest: USC (Nov. 8), Mississippi State (Nov. 23)
The rest: Southern Utah (Nov. 12), at UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 16), at Weber State (Nov. 26), Pacific (Dec. 7), Utah Valley (Dec. 14), Western Illinois (Dec. 19), UC Santa Barbara (Dec. 20), Troy (Dec. 21), San Diego Christian (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Aggies get loads of credit for making more of an effort to upgrade the schedule in their first year in the league. Coach Stew Morrill is usually not willing to go places, but he does have the rivalry game against BYU as well as USC at home. Mississippi State is the return of a home-and-home series.
Toughest: at Colorado (Nov. 13), at Ohio State (Nov. 25)
Next toughest: at Denver (Dec. 15), SMU (Dec. 20)
The rest: Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 8), Western State (Nov. 10), Arkansas State (Nov. 16), Jackson State (Nov. 18), South Dakota (Nov. 22), Montana State (Nov. 30), Black Hills State (Dec. 2), Northern Colorado (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Cowboys are going on the road to Ohio State, something that is not the norm for Larry Shyatt, who has always worked the schedule to his advantage and not played a high number of upper-level games. The rivalry game with Colorado is always a difficult one. Going to Denver may be close, but the Pioneers have become one of the better squads out West. SMU returns on the back end of a home-and-home series, but this time the Mustangs are much more formidable.
2. UCLA coach Ben Howland said Travis Wear is doubtful for Wednesday's game against Arizona State, but he's hopeful that he might be able to play against Arizona on Saturday (9 p.m. ESPN, College Gameday). The Bruins beat USC without Wear (right foot injury) Sunday night. Meanwhile, Howland said he continues to be impressed by the play of freshman Jordan Adams, who is averaging 15.1 points a game. "That's not easy to do for a freshman,'' said Howland. "He's not flashy, he's not a high-flying dunker. He's a great basketball player.'' Shabazz Muhammad, who received most of the attention this season, has had one hurdle after another this season (eligibility and injuries). His most recent situation was pink eye. Howland said Muhammad couldn't wear his contacts for a week until just before the USC game. But the biggest surprise as the Bruins get set for a huge weekend of games against the Arizona schools is the play of Larry Drew II. Drew has a chance to end his one year playing at UCLA by setting the single-season record for assists at UCLA. "That's pretty strong,'' said Howland.
3. The Utah State legislature made a genuine gesture Monday in recognizing the life-saving work of Utah State athletic trainer Mike Williams in saving Danny Berger's life when he collapsed during a Utah State practice Dec. 4. Williams was given the Heartsaver Hero Award by the American Heart Association after he used an AED and performed CPR to revive Berger. Berger later had a pacemaker inserted into his chest and continues to recover. The Utah legislature also passed a bill to purchase $300,000 worth of AEDs for municipal, county or state departments, 7-12 grade schools and higher education institutions. Berger was averaging 7.6 points a game prior to collapsing. He started 25 of 31 games last season. The word hero is used too loosely. Williams was a hero on Dec. 4 and deserves all of this recognition.
Until last Thursday, anyway.
That game, a crucial away game against WAC rival New Mexico State, was a 64-51 loss. But it was more than that. As Utah State announced Monday, it was also the second half in which junior guard Preston Medlin fractured his wrist and senior forward Kyisean Reed suffered a torn ACL. Medlin will miss 6-to-8 weeks, according to the school. Reed's injury is season-ending.
Both injuries are devastating. Medlin was averaging 16.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.0 steals per game, with an offensive rating of 121.0, a 39.3 percent mark from beyond the arc, and one of the 10 lowest defensive foul rates (just 1.0 per 40 minutes) in the country. Reed was nearly as efficient (his offensive rating was 118.7), but he was an even greater contributor on the defensive end, where he posted a 6.9 percent block rate and 3.5 steals per 100 possessions. Morrill will have to replace both players, who averaged about 22 percent usage of available possessions, with a group of reserves and freshmen that may or may not be ready for the roles.
"First and foremost is our concern for Kyisean and Preston. This is as tough as it gets and we hurt for them first and our team second," USU coach Stew Morrill said in a statement released by Utah State. "We expect our players to step up and compete, as we have a lot of season left."
Utah State lost its second game over the weekend, a really tough road trip to Denver (which remains much better than you think, and the clear WAC favorite). Whether Morrill can right the ship in the face of such sudden injury headwinds remains to be seen.
2. In the lead-up to Gonzaga-Butler on Saturday, please don't refer to these teams as mid-major. I will continue to hammer this home, even to the point of being too repetitive. I don't like the term mid-major. I don't like labels. The net is cast way too wide. Is Creighton the same as St. Francis? Not at all. Oh, that's right, St. Francis is low-major. Stop. Gonzaga and Butler both now travel by charter. Their coaches make close to or more than $1 million a year. The fan bases are more passionate than a number of power-six (another label) conference teams. Both of these schools get invites to high-profile tournaments, can land quality home-and-home series and are ranked. These are all things schools like Washington State or Texas Tech or Penn State or Boston College, among others, would love to have to sell. Just because those schools are in a conference with major college football doesn't put their basketball programs at a higher level. They're not. Gonzaga and Butler are high-major (label) programs now. There is nothing mid-major about either one.
3. The Big West had a chance to rise as true basketball conference again with the addition of top-25 San Diego State and a surging program in Boise State. Now both are staying in the Mountain West and won't be joining the Big West. It's great news for the MWC, which, with the addition of Utah State, will remain one of the top six conferences (yes, I believe that). The Big West will now need Hawaii and one of the UC schools to be a regular at the top of the conference to create some consistency and legitimacy in the region. Hawaii has more of a national profile than the UC schools, in large part because it hosts more programs in tournaments like the Diamond Head Classic.
Here are Blue Ribbon's in-depth previews of all 10 WAC teams:
New Mexico State
San Jose State Seattle
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 15-18), at Creighton (Dec. 9)
Next-toughest: Middle Tennessee (Dec. 2), at Detroit (Dec. 15), Princeton (Dec. 30)
The rest: at Coastal Carolina (Nov. 9), John Carroll (Nov. 12), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 18), Cleveland State (Dec. 23), Texas Southern (Dec. 27), Coppin State (Jan. 2)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The Zips could theoretically face Oklahoma State, Tennessee and NC State in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. But Zeke Marshall & Co. have a guaranteed matchup at Creighton in early December. That road trip to Detroit a week later will pit the favorite in the MAC against the favorite in the Horizon League. MTSU and Princeton are also strong mid-majors. It’s a strong start for an Akron team that upset Mississippi State in its season opener a year ago.
Toughest: at New Mexico (Nov. 12), vs. Duke (Jan. 2 in Charlotte)
Next-toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 22-25), at Drexel (Dec. 22)
The rest: Emory (Nov. 9), at Milwaukee (Nov. 17), at Chattanooga (Dec. 1), Charlotte (Dec. 5), Wofford (Dec. 8), UNC Wilmington (Dec. 15), at Richmond (Dec. 29), UNC Greensboro (Jan. 5)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The core of a team that topped Kansas on a neutral site in 2011 returns this season. Can De'Mon Brooks, Jake Cohen and the rest of the Wildcats pull off another Top 25 upset against Duke in early January? It’s possible. The Old Spice Classic field is lukewarm, which gives Davidson a legitimate chance to win its first two games and meet Gonzaga in the final. Solid schedule for a team that’s built to make noise in March.
Toughest: at Syracuse (Dec. 17)
Next-toughest: at St. John's (Nov. 13), at Miami (Nov. 24), at Pittsburgh (Dec. 1), Akron (Dec. 15), at Temple (Dec. 28)
The rest: Northern Michigan (Nov. 9), Drake (Nov. 17), at Bowling Green (Nov. 27), Toledo (Dec. 5), Rochester (Dec. 8), Alabama State (Dec. 10), at Alcorn State (Dec. 19), Canisius (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Detroit’s mid-December meeting with Syracuse is the toughest game on its nonconference slate. But the Horizon League favorite earns a 9 based on their “next-toughest” matchups. The Titans will play three teams (Pitt, Temple and Miami, all on the road) that could finish top-five in their respective leagues and earn NCAA tournament bids. Legitimate shots at top-50 RPI wins for Ray McCallum Sr.’s squad.
Toughest: at Saint Joseph’s (Nov. 20), at Memphis (Jan. 19)
Next-toughest: at UMass (Nov. 13), at Connecticut (Dec. 7), at Cal (Dec. 29), at Saint Mary’s (Dec. 31)
The rest: MIT (Nov. 9), Manhattan (Nov. 16), Vermont (Nov. 27), Fordham (Dec. 1), at Boston College (Dec. 4), Boston U (Dec. 11), Holy Cross (Dec. 22), Rice (Jan. 5)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Last season, Harvard finally broke its NCAA tournament drought (the Crimson hadn’t made an appearance since 1946). Thoughts of a return, however, have been subdued by the losses of top scorer Kyle Casey (11.4 ppg) and standout guard Brandyn Curry (4.9 apg), who were both implicated in a cheating scandal during the offseason. Tommy Amaker’s squad travels to Cal, Memphis, UConn, St. Joe's and Saint Mary’s -- barometers for this team’s chances of returning to the Big Dance. If Harvard's confidence can survive that stretch, the Crimson will enter Ivy League play with an argument for an at-large berth. But those personnel hits dramatically reduce expectations for the program.
Toughest: at Baylor (Nov. 9), NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-23), at VCU (Jan. 5)
Next-toughest: at North Texas (Dec. 20)
The rest: at Sacred Heart (Nov. 25), at Quinnipiac (Nov. 27), Fairleigh Dickinson (Dec. 1), Fordham (Dec. 4), at St. Francis-Pa (Dec. 8), Bryant (Dec. 29), Muhlenberg (Jan. 8)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- C.J. McCollum passed on the NBA to return to Lehigh for his senior season. After leading the 15-seed Mountain Hawks to an upset against Duke in March, Lehigh is ready to turn more heads with a respectable nonconference menu that will feature multiple NCAA tournament-caliber squads. The Mountain Hawks kick off the year with a tough road trip to Baylor. They will play at Pitt with a trip to MSG on the line if they knock off Robert Morris in the NIT opener. And then two big tests at North Texas and VCU around the holidays. Last year’s upset against the Blue Devils elevated Lehigh’s stock. The program will earn even more credibility if it’s successful in the opening months of 2012-13.
LONG BEACH STATE
Toughest: North Carolina (Nov. 16), at Arizona (Nov. 19), at Syracuse (Dec. 6), at Ohio State (Dec. 8), at UCLA (Dec. 18)
Next-toughest: at USC (Nov. 13), BracketBusters (TBA)
The rest: North Alabama (Nov. 10), at Fresno State (Nov. 25), at Loyola Marymount (Nov. 29), Fresno State (Dec. 3), BYU Hawaii (Dec. 15), Pacific (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- They've done it again. In recent years, Dan Monson’s squad has topped the nonconference strength of schedule ratings. Long Beach State should maintain that status with a slate featuring five teams that could be ranked in the top 15 of the preseason polls (UNC, Arizona, Syracuse, Ohio State, UCLA). But the foursome that carried the program in recent years -- Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps -- is gone. So Monson will rely on multiple transfers and his 2012 recruiting class to battle through one of the toughest opening stretches in the nation.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 15-18)
Next-toughest: at Dayton (Dec. 22), Valparaiso (Dec. 29), BracketBusters (TBA)
The rest: Brescia (Nov. 9), Old Dominion (Nov. 24), at Lipscomb (Nov. 26), Bethel (Dec. 4), at Evansville (Dec. 8), Western Kentucky (Dec. 16), at Arkansas State (Dec. 19)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The Racers should enter the season as a Top 25 team after winning their first 23 games last season and achieving a national ranking throughout the season. After opening with Auburn and then getting St. John's or Charleston, Isaiah Canaan could lead Murray State to a Charleston Classic title game matchup against Baylor or Colorado. Those are the only two nonconference foes that pose an obvious threat for the Racers. Always-tough ODU and Horizon co-favorite Valpo travel to Murray, and the Racers are sure to be given a tough BracketBusters opponent. Still, given the accomplishments last season and the return of Canaan, the Racers can’t get too much credit for this schedule. Then again, high-major programs probably dodged this mid-major powerhouse.
Toughest: at Creighton (Nov. 9), NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 12-23), at Saint Louis (Dec. 5)
Next-toughest: Lehigh (Dec. 20)
The rest: Cameron (Nov. 16), Texas-Arlington (Nov. 28), Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 1), Jackson State (Dec. 8), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 16)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- Tony Mitchell could lead the Mean Green to a regional round upset of Kansas State in the NIT Season Tip-Off. And if that happens, a matchup with Virginia at MSG could happen, with Michigan or Pitt waiting in the wings. Even if the program stumbles, however, road trips to Creighton and Saint Louis , a pair of Top 25 squads, will boost its nonconference schedule in Tony Benford’s first season as head coach. C.J. McCollum and Lehigh come to Denton five days before Christmas for a meaningful mid-major matchup. No complaints for this slate.
Toughest: at Memphis (Dec. 5)
Next-toughest: at UMass (Dec. 19), at Oklahoma (Dec. 29), Marshall (Jan. 5)
The rest: Portland (Nov. 10), UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 16), Wofford (Nov. 18), Hampton (Nov. 20), Richmond (Nov. 24), St. Bonaventure (Nov. 28), at Robert Morris (Dec. 1), Oakland (Dec. 8), Winthrop (Dec. 15), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- D.J. Cooper is back to help Ohio build off last season’s Sweet 16 run. Memphis is the only team on the Bobcats' nonconference schedule that could stifle the team’s effort to extend that momentum. Marshall will be tough, and UMass and Oklahoma are sleepers in their respective conferences, but the rest of the schedule is simply average, especially for a squad that nearly toppled North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. But remember, that run didn’t make scheduling any easier.
Toughest: at BYU (Dec. 5)
Next-toughest: Saint Mary’s (Nov. 15)
The rest: Idaho State (Nov. 10), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Nov. 17), Weber State (Nov. 24), at Santa Clara (Nov. 28), Western Oregon (Dec. 8), at Utah Valley (Dec. 15), Nicholls State (Dec. 20), UC Davis (Dec. 21), Southern Illinois (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Before Utah State takes its talents to the Mountain West, it will finish its tenure in the WAC vying with New Mexico State for the conference championship. If the Aggies can win at BYU, and win home games versus SIU and Saint Mary's, they’ll certainly be prepared for another run to the WAC title. But one or two additional matchups against high-major opponents wouldn’t have hurt.
The loudest kvetching of the spring centered on Butler’s move to the Atlantic–10, where some believed the Bulldogs would need to change to compete. As we’ve detailed before, that seems unlikely. Butler is good enough to play in the Atlantic–10 already. The Bulldogs will be fine.
That’s about to change. In 2013, Utah State will move to the Mountain West, which has for the past two seasons been the best conference on the West Coast, Pac-(10)12 included. Morrill spoke with Salt Lake Tribune writer Tony Jones about next year’s move, and the benefits are obvious: Utah State gets to play UNLV and New Mexico every season, not to mention fellow realigners Nevada and an emerging program in Colorado State, which just hired an experienced head coach in Larry Eustachy.
UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood is thrilled with the addition, and understandably so:
“Having Utah State in the conference greatly lessons the blow of losing San Diego State,” UNLV Athletics Director Jim Livengood said. “I believe that they can come in and compete right away with anyone. The staff is great, and anyone who has played against Stew Morrill knows that it won’t be an easy time of it. Utah State is going to help the Mountain West and the Mountain West is going to help Utah State. This is the perfect marriage.”
But as Jones writes, there are also potential drawbacks. Utah State won’t have to worry about scheduling anymore, because it will always have the likes of Mountain West play to fall back on, and high-major teams should be more willing to schedule the Aggies with the essential guarantee that Utah State’s (read: the WAC’s) RPI effects won’t come back to bite them. But Utah State also won’t be a big fish in a very small pond. To compete with the likes of New Mexico and especially UNLV -- where Dave Rice is recruiting top–25 players like the good old days -- Morrill will have to change his longtime routine, perhaps significantly.
If Morrill can do that, the Aggies should be able to hang tough in the Mountain West. If he can’t -- if Utah State essentially remains the same program, dropped into a much tougher league -- it’s possible the Aggies could lose much of their frequent NCAA tournament luster. Rather than mid-major darlings of the West, Utah State could be just another Mountain West team. Ho hum.
In many ways, Utah State might be the best distillation of conference realignment’s double-edged sword. Bigger conference, tougher opponents, more tournament bids, better seeding, more money? Great! Fewer trips to the NCAA tournament? Entirely possible.
Forget Butler. Over the next five years, the real costs and benefits of conference realignment will play out in Logan, Utah, where an excellent but underrated program is set to step into the big leagues. Where Morrill and Co. go from here remains to be seen, but the effects of that evolution -- or lack thereof -- will be fascinating to observe.
Here's what you do: Type "youtube.com" into your web browser. Enter the search term "I believe that we will win." Click on the second video. Watch:
Yes, that's "I believe that we will win," the Utah State student section's pregame chant. I've seen it before, but never in such high video quality, not until the tremendous MileHighMids passed it along on Twitter. It's everything a basketball chant should be: Organized, direct, supportive, intimidating and not the least bit hokey. It's not cocky, either; when I hear "believe," I hear less expectation than faith. That's what sports fandom is. It's a form of faith.
To be honest, I think our English neighbors tend to outdo us when it comes to chants and songs; we yell "DE-FENSE," they sing "You'll Never Walk Alone." But I'm not sure I've heard a chant this good in the last five years. I'm all goosebumps. I could watch it 10 times. (Correction: I have watched it 10 times. I could watch it 10 more.)
Tipster Mids was curious: Is this chant spreading, "Zombie Nation"-like, across the country? Thus far, the YouTube evidence is slim. The majority of the videos on YouTube are of Utah State's student section; some are higher quality than others, but all of them are impressive. There are a few clips of San Diego State's "The Show" student section organizing the chant last year. There is one clip of Harvard students doing the same -- be sure to wait for the guy dancing at the :19 second mark. And New York Red Bulls fans -- come on you, Red Bulls! -- have given it a decided football flair. (It does sound soccer-y, doesn't it?)
Utah State has been doing this chant for years, so I assumed they invented it. Turns out, that's not the case. According to a Dec. 6, 2003 story in the Washington Post, the chant originated at a Navy football game, when Navy -- in one of their first promising seasons in decades -- was trailing No. 25-ranked Air Force 28-25 in the final minutes:
In October, the Midshipmen were in the last minutes of a 28-25 win over Air Force, then ranked No. 25. Navy hadn't beaten a ranked opponent in 18 years -- longer than some Mids had been alive. Yet some in the Brigade, which stands throughout every game, began jumping up and down at FedEx Field. "I," they chanted softly, then louder, "I believe . . ."
Sources say a group of Navy lacrosse players started the ruckus, though you can't be sure because urban legends are quickly springing up around Johnson's 7-4 team.
"I believe that," they yelled as more joined in. "I believe that we . . ." Until finally, the whole Brigade, more than 2,000 strong, was bounding up and down, screaming, "I believe that we will. ... I believe that we will win!"
Just when you think this chant can't possibly get any cooler, you go and learn something like this. It's been eight years in the making -- maybe longer, but the first T-shirt sale reference at Navy came in 2003, too -- but "I believe that we will win" finally seems to be entering the college basketball mainstream.
It may do so solely as a mid-major rallying cry: The Mid Majority's Kyle Whelliston added the words to his masthead this season to commemorate the start of a new, collectively driven era of coverage at the site. (Whelliston is on sabbatical, but his readers are attempting to travel to 800 games as a group, and the early results have produced some fantastic writing).
Or maybe "I believe that we will win" will really sweep the nation the way Zombie Nation once did, infecting student sections at schools both large and small. As much as fans from Navy or Utah State may want to preserve the unique nature of the chant -- and as much as the chant feels like it should be reserved for the underdog -- I ... I believe ... I believe that ... I believe that I wouldn't have any problem with that. Would you?
Not only did the infamous "Wild" Bill Sproat help lead an "Occupy The Spectrum" movement for tickets to Friday night's game. When BYU arrived on campus Thursday night, they were greeted by a well-organized and entirely unfriendly welcoming committee. To wit:
Maybe if it wasn't dark outside, it wouldn't feel so sinister. If I'm a BYU player, I'm slightly intimidated getting off that bus. I'm slightly intimidated doing much of anything in that arena, frankly. I'm not intimidated by Wild Bill. That's more of a distraction. But in tandem, look out. Tonight's Spectrum atmosphere could be one for the ages.
Fortunately, there is far more to this opening Friday of basketball. This is really the first day of the season, and this weekend is the first time we get to see one of those familiar all-day smatterings of the sport.
An aircraft carrier's awfully cool, but actual basketball? On Saturday and Sunday? The season is back, folks, and that might be the most exciting part of all. Here's an extended primer on the weekend's most interesting games:
Marist at Kentucky (7 p.m. ET, ESPN3): For all of the excitement over the return of forward Terrence Jones, Kentucky's freshmen class is the reason this team is one of the favorites to win the national title. Thing is, we haven't seen these freshmen play -- at least not in a real college basketball game. Of course, Marist isn't going to put up much of a fight; Chuck Martin's team was one of the worst in all of Division I last season. Either way, though, it will be interesting to see just how scary this Kentucky team looks. If their recent 126-40 exhibition win is any indication, it could be a long night for the Red Foxes.
Rhode Island at George Mason (7:30 p.m. ET): Former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt makes his debut at George Mason Friday night. In many ways, Hewitt's Mason move is his opportunity to prove some of the critics of his coaching at Georgia Tech -- those who say he was merely a good recruiter who couldn't often piece together actual basketball teams -- wrong. The team he inherited in 2011-12 is solid, but it lost major pieces (Cam Long graduated, Luke Hancock transferred) from last year's successful run. Hewitt's ability to get big contributions out previous role players will define his first season in the Colonial.
Belmont at Duke (9 p.m. ET, ESPNU): This is arguably the best non-Carrier game of the weekend. Duke is Duke. Cameron Indoor is Cameron Indoor. Coach K is Coach K; he's just three wins shy of breaking his mentor Bob Knight's all-time college basketball wins record, a feat he could very well accomplish in his next three games. But Belmont is far from a guarantee. On the contrary, the Bruins were 30-4 and a major tournament sleeper last season, but a tough No. 4 vs. No. 13 matchup with Wisconsin derailed those hopes. But Belmont returns almost everyone of note from 2011-12 -- they're probably the best mid-major team in the country -- and whatever advantages Duke may have on their home floor could be negated by the Bruins' experience and cohesion. We don't know if this young Duke team has those qualities yet, or if sheer talent will be enough to carry them through. But we get to find out on The U tonight. Don't miss this one.
BYU at Utah State (9 p.m. ET, ESPN3): Speaking of games you shouldn't miss, huh? Here's another must-see, and there are a handful of reasons why: Both teams are consistent winners, both teams are retooling after particularly successful 2011-12 seasons, both teams are well-coached and play smart, sharp, uptempo basketball. Those are all good reasons to tune in. But they may fall short of the two main reasons, which are:
1. This rivalry. Utah State fans do not like BYU, and yes, that is a massive understatement.
2. The atmosphere. Utah State superfan "Wild" Bill Sproat leads one of the rowdiest and most distracting student sections in the country. If he performs "I'm a little teapot" again -- just Google it -- your time will have been well spent. Trust me.
Oregon at Vanderbilt (10 p.m. ET, ESPN3): Neither coach particularly wanted to open the season with this matchup, as our own Andy Katz blogged Wednesday. But Oregon coach Dana Altman was desperate after learning Auburn had cancelled a proposed season-opener, and Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, a friend of Altman's stepped up and took the game. It's not the most opportune time for Vandy to be playing sneaky-good, well-coached Pac-12 sleepers; starting forward Festus Ezeli will be injured for another six weeks, and until his return the Commodores may be content to tread water. A loss tonight would not be the start anyone in Nashville is looking for.
Lehigh at Iowa State (2 ET, ESPN3): As we saw Wednesday night -- just before an athletic and talented St. John's team pulled a win together in the final minutes -- Lehigh, led by third-year star guard C.J. McCollum, can really play. This is a challenge for Iowa State. But much of what makes this game a challenge for the Cyclones will come from within: Is Fred Hoiberg's transfer-heavy lineup, featuring former Minnesota flameout Royce White and former Michigan State cast-off Chris Allen, mature and focused and ready to go? Are the issues that cost those players their original roles with their original teams officially behind them? Can a team with this many transfers be even greater than the sum of its talented parts? The road to answers in Ames begins Saturday.
Butler at Evansville (3 p.m. ET): Last year, when Butler went to Evansville and promptly lost to the Purple Aces, it was fashionable to declare the Bulldogs' season over. It's important to remember, not only for Butler but for just about every team on this docket, that this is only the first game of the season. In Butler's case, it's another chance to see Brad Stevens' handful of new players, as well as check in on how Andrew Smith and Khyle Marshall are adjusting to new featured roles.
Presbyterian at Duke (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU): This is likely to be an easy Duke win, but it has meaning: If Duke beats Belmont Friday night, this could be the game Coach K ties Knight for 902 career wins. If Duke doesn't beat Belmont, well, it will have to wait a game or two to finish up all this record business. It's a little anticlimactic, actually: We know he's going to get this victory eventually. It's not if, but when.
Northern Iowa at Old Dominion (7 p.m. ET): Never let it be said that Northern Iowa is afraid to play anyone anywhere. The Panthers open with one of the more brutal mid-major schedules of any team that doesn't have to play crazy guarantee games to keep the basketballs inflated: UNI begins Saturday night at ODU, where senior guard Kent Bazemore is looking to continue his program's recent emergence onto the national scene. Then, after that east coast trip, Northern Iowa travels all the way across the country to Moraga, Calif., where they will play Randy Bennett's experienced batch of St. Mary's sharpshooters. Just a brutal way to open your season. Fun, travel-filled, eye-opening -- and totally brutal.
Cleveland State at Vanderbilt (2 p.m. ET, ESPNU): If there's one mid-major team whose fans are most vocal on Twitter, it may just be Cleveland State. They swear -- swear! -- that the Vikings have been overlooked this preseason. The reasons are understandable, they say; 2011 star guard Norris Cole is in the NBA, and CSU didn't make the tournament with him, so why would people think it could do so without him? But the Vikings do have some serious talent: Everybody but Cole is back, and coach Gary Waters has added a batch of talented players to the rotation this offseason. Vanderbilt, playing without Ezeli, gets two nice tests to open the season this weekend.
North Carolina at UNC Asheville (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU): You might be curious: Why would North Carolina go to UNC Asheville to play an early-season nonconference game? In most cases, your incredulity would be warranted. In this instance, it's a gesture of good faith: Asheville is opening a brand new basketball arena on Sunday afternoon, and Williams and the Tar Heels decided to help their satellite campus christen the new digs by dropping on the first weekend of the season. UNC may want to be careful, though: Any Carrier-lag or hangover, and they could find themselves in a battle with a scrappy Asheville squad. No good deed goes unpunished?
Lamar at Louisville (4 ET, ESPN3): Pat Knight is like his father Bob in at least one way: He's a thoroughly enjoyable character. Unfortunately, the younger Knight didn't display the kind of program-building prowess that for decades made his father the king of Indiana basketball. Then again, it's a bit harder to build a program at Texas Tech. It's not exactly "Hoosiers" in Lubbock, you know? Either way, Knight's post-Tech career with Lamar begins Sunday night at Louisville, where the Cardinals are gearing up for what Rick Pitino hopes can be his most successful season since 2009.
Southern at Texas A&M (4 p.m. ET): Texas A&M cruised past Liberty in their debut Wednesday night, and that should be the expectation when Southern comes to town Sunday, too. But the underlying concern here is for new coach Billy Kennedy's health. Kennedy was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's, and he is yet to make his return to the team after leaving to begin treatment earlier this month. Could he come back Sunday?
Chattanooga at Indiana (5 p.m. ET): Indiana fans are as excited for this season as any in recent memory; the addition of top forward recruit Cody Zeller to a slowly improving lineup bodes well for the Hoosiers' chances of avoiding the Big Ten cellar -- and competing for at least some form of tournament presence -- in 2011-12. But Indiana should be careful here: Chattanooga is one of the SoCon's best squads this season, and they could spring an upset on Indiana before you can say "cream and crimson."
Rider at Pittsburgh (6 p.m. ET, ESPN3): There are questions about Pittsburgh this season, questions that may either take a month or two, or no time at all, to answer. Can the Panthers rebound as well without senior forward Gary McGhee? Can point guard Travon Woodall capably handle his larger and more important role? We'll get a glimpse at some of these answers Sunday night, as Rider should at the very least provide a frisky early test for Jamie Dixon's team.
Florida Atlantic at Washington (8 p.m. ET): Are the nation's scribes just a little too low on Washington? It's starting to feel that way. The Huskies received minimal top 25 love this season, and they do have big holes to fill: Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning were this team's two most important players, and both are gone. But Lorenzo Romar does have a bunch of talent in Seattle, namely Terrence Ross and star freshman Tony Wroten, Jr., who may eclipse most, if not all, of the other star freshmen guards with his ability to smoothly score and distribute in Romar's fast-break game.
George Washington at Cal (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU): There are high hopes for Cal this season; many believe they're the rightful Pac-12 favorite. If so, they'll have to get nice contributions from Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs, who has played well during exhibitions and could be a nice complement to experienced guards Allen Crabbe, Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp.
Blue Ribbon breakdowns of all eight teams in the WAC:
New Mexico State
San Jose State
More WAC content:
- Andy Katz on how Utah State continues to set the standard in the conference.
- Katz takes a look at the shifting winds of the college hoops landscape in the West, including the ever-changing WAC.
- New Faces, New Places: Katz profiles first-year coaches Michael White (Louisiana Tech), Rodney Terry (Fresno State) and Gib Arnold (Hawaii).
- John Stovall gives the lowdown on the incoming freshmen in the WAC.
- Leung breaks down the nonconference schedule of Utah State and warns readers not to sleep on the Aggies.
- Leung on the Nevada players who have taken to calling themselves the Fab Four.
- For more coverage of the WAC in the Nation blog, click here.
2. Butler was the pick to win the Horizon League again, barely over Detroit. But the telling info from the Horizon Leauge poll was that the Bulldogs had no one on the preseason all-league first team and only one (Andrew Smith) on the second. Meanwhile, Detroit had the player of the year (Ray McCallum Jr.) and two others on the first team (Eli Holman and Chase Simon). One problem for the Titans is Holman started the fall by taking a leave of absence due to personal issues. Still, if there was ever a year for Detroit to unseat Butler this is the season. Failing this season could be a significant psychological blow.
3. Nevada was picked by the WAC coaches to win the league, edging out New Mexico State. Utah State was third. Utah State has been the dominant team in the WAC, and it is finally going through a rebuilding phase. Utah State has been in the mix an at-large berth for years and fellow bubble teams have sweated out the WAC final. No need to worry this season. Nevada probably won’t have the résumé to warrant an at-large berth in its final season in the WAC before going to the MWC. This is a one-bid league.