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Wednesday, February 26, 2014
James Madison is new mid-major No. 1

By Graham Hays

Amanda Hyde
Amanda Hyde is one of four players 5 feet, 11 inches or shorter in the top 50 nationally in field goal percentage.

A word of warning to the coach who finds a place for Amanda Hyde as one of his or her assistants in the years to come. She is going to be smarter than you. Go ahead and get used to it.

On the plus side, you need not worry about carrying the four while trying to figure out the tip for a team meal.

Named a first-team Capital One Academic All-American this past week, here is how the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne senior math major explained what she meant when she described a particular math class as abstract and theoretical.

“In layman’s terms, it’s the theory behind calculus,” Hyde explained, slowly and patiently, when asked to dumb it down for someone whose lone experience with the subject in college came in a course described as math for poets. “In a calculus class you’re doing the integrals and taking derivatives. And now we’re looking at why do we do that and the mathematicians from way back when who created those ideas. It’s pretty in-depth and so abstract.

“I don’t see numbers, really. We don’t deal with numbers anymore.”

If that sounds like a good way to induce a headache, try stopping her on a basketball court. She deals in plenty of numbers there.

A few days after she received the academic accolade, Hyde scored 36 points in a win against IUPUI, the Indianapolis school that is part of the same state system as IPFW and is its rival in the Summit League. That was a good game but hardly an outlier in her basketball canon. The reigning Summit League player of the year (she was also the conference’s scholar of the year across all women’s sports as a junior), Hyde averages 21.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists this season.

She is the only player in the country averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and four assists per game and shooting at least 50 percent from the field. She is one of four players 5 feet, 11 inches or shorter in the top 50 nationally in field goal percentage. The other three: Baylor’s Nina Davis, Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd and Syracuse’s Brittany Sykes. That’s nice company.

Amanda Hyde
Amanda Hyde is the country's only player averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and four assists while shooting at least 50 percent from the field.

Watch her play and you see a guard with good size for the mid-major level, good balance and footwork when she posts up or drives into the lane and the decisive first step shared by a lot of scorers. But those are subtle details. She doesn’t look out of place warming up amidst the kind of players who populate the Summit League -- often a little shorter or a step slower than their counterparts in major conferences. Still, something obviously sets her apart, and not just on the Summit League stage but when she does things like score 23 points in a win at Michigan State.

The analytical mind that pulled her toward math, the satisfaction she derived from the simplicity of a right answer and a wrong answer, also informs the way she deconstructs basketball -- after the fact and even in the moment. Growing up, she listened to her father tell her time and again to be a student of the game. And she only knows one way to be a student.

“I think it’s sort of made me very detail-oriented,” Hyde said. “I look at everything from kind of a unique perspective. Every move I’m about to make, is it the right one? Is it going to give me a step on the girl who is guarding me? When I get into the paint, I need to be aware. Do I have the layup? Do I need to kick it out? I think math has always kept my mind sharp and constantly going, and I think that has helped me keep up with the quick pace of the college game.”

That can go too far -- paralysis by analysis, as a lot of coaches who did not major in pure mathematics might put it. She shoots 55 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 86 percent from the free throw line. But there are times when the best player on the court needs to take shots that aren’t, statistically speaking, good shots.

“One of the battles Amanda and I have is that she won’t shoot the ball enough,” IPFW coach Chris Paul said. “She feels like she should make every shot, so when she misses a couple and she doesn’t understand why, then she maybe wants to defer to somebody else. Instead of just saying, ‘You know what, I missed a couple, but I know I’m going to make the next one,’ sometimes she can out think herself.”

It’s just how her mind works. And all things considered, it’s a battle in which Paul would eagerly engage for years to come, if only her eligibility allowed it.

It doesn’t require an abacus to count the days remaining in Hyde’s career, fingers will do. Even with the win against IUPUI, IPFW is tied for a distant third place behind that team and South Dakota State in the Summit League. It would likely need to beat both in the conference tournament to earn the automatic NCAA tournament bid that is its only hope of prolonging the season beyond next week.

But Hyde will be in Nashville for the Final Four, not in uniform with the Mastodons presumably but attending a seminar put on by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association for 50 current players who want to transition into coaching. Might she be the next Brad Stevens, who was a well-documented student of analytics during his time coaching Butler? Perhaps. How she sees the game and the world isn't going to change. But changing the game isn't her main objective. She just wants to give others the same opportunity she made so much of.

“I feel like I’ve learned a ton throughout my years,” Hyde said. “And I have a lot more to learn.”

Now on to the rankings.

1. James Madison (23-4, 13-0 Colonial; Charlie Creme’s projected NCAA tournament seed: No. 10)


We ended last season with a team from the Colonial atop the rankings, and we’ll do the same this season. Look at the overall résumé -- wins against Virginia, UCLA and St. John’s, and paper-thin losses against Vanderbilt and North Carolina. Look at momentum, as James Madison continues to roll through opponents in conference play by nearly 30 points per game. Look at a defense that ranks 10th nationally in scoring defense and sixth in field goal defense, with only Connecticut and South Carolina similarly in the top 10 in both categories. And look at a senior star in Kirby Burkholder who is peaking at the perfect time. James Madison has earned the top spot and has a chance to make noise in March.

2. Gonzaga (24-4, 14-2 WCC; projected seed: No. 6)


A loss at BYU on Feb. 15 opened the door at which James Madison was already knocking for No. 1, but Gonzaga is doing just fine as the postseason approaches. In bouncing back from the loss with a win against Portland (the final meeting between coach Kelly Graves and retiring Pilots coach Jim Sollars, who gave Graves his first Division I job), Gonzaga clinched a share of its 10th consecutive WCC regular-season title. It can finish the job with a win against Saint Mary’s on Thursday, one of only two WCC teams to beat the Bulldogs this season, or against Pacific on Saturday.

3. Bowling Green (23-3, 13-1 MAC; projected seed: 11)


This time Bowling Green finished the job. Leading Central Michigan by 11 points with three minutes to play when the teams met in Mount Pleasant, Mich., back in January, Bowling Green lost the lead and then lost the game in overtime. In the rematch this past week, the Falcons took the lead against the league leader with a little more than four minutes to play in the first half and never let it out of their grasp. This isn’t an assists-friendly offense, but in terms of running a team, it’s difficult to do better than Jillian Halfhill. In MAC play, she’s shooting 48 percent from the field, 50 percent from the 3-point line and 85 percent from the free throw line to form a dynamic duo with do-everything Alexis Rogers.

4. Dayton (20-5, 13-1 Atlantic 10; projected seed: No. 6)


Off the national radar after a slow start, Dayton quietly took control of a good and reasonably deep conference. The most recent strong showing was Sunday’s 26-point win against Saint Joseph’s. In five games since the last rankings, junior Ally Mallott averaged 11 rebounds per game. That stretch included back-to-back double-doubles and a game with 23 points and nine rebounds. All of this against the backdrop of a crazy schedule that saw the team play four games in the span of a week, traveling from Kingston, R.I., home to Dayton and then to St. Louis and Philadelphia.

5. Chattanooga (24-3, 16-0 Southern; projected seed: No. 12)


The unbeaten run nearly came to an end Monday, when Chattanooga needed a late rally in regulation and two overtimes to come away with a win at Samford, but Alex Black and Chelsey Shumpert came up with the necessary points in support of Taylor Hall. All Chattanooga can do is keep going about its business. It’s unfortunate but out of the Lady Mocs’ control that the Southern hasn’t produced much in the way of a serious challenger this season, Furman and Davidson tied for second place in the conference but a full six games behind Jim Foster’s team.

6. Middle Tennessee (23-4, 12-1 Conference USA; projected seed: No. 8)


It hasn’t always been easy or pretty (see: Saturday’s 48-46 win against Charlotte), but Middle Tennessee just keeps defending and winning in its first Conference USA season. It might be more quirk than trend at this point, but the Blue Raiders are even on turnovers and assists over the past six games after running a significant deficit in the preceding 21 games. Work remains. There are six Conference USA teams with winning records in the league. Middle Tennessee is one; it still plays three of the other five, including road games at East Carolina and Tulane.

7. Marist (22-6, 16-2 MAAC; projected seed: N/A)


By the end of February, a team probably is what the evidence suggests it is. In the case of Marist, that might be a group that is not on par defensively with teams of recent vintage in Poughkeepsie, certainly not consistently. But it’s also a team that at peak form can be as good offensively as anything Brian Giorgis has put on a basketball court. In three games since the last rankings, Marist averaged 87 points, shot 55 percent and totaled 70 assists against 32 turnovers. No player was warmer than Sydney Coffey, who averaged 19.3 points on, oh, 76 percent shooting.

8. Central Michigan (17-9, 13-1 MAC; projected seed: N/A)


The Chippewas only drop one spot, in part because losing a game at Bowling Green is hardly an embarrassment and in part because so many other teams in the mix stumbled. Central Michigan hit just 10-of-49 3-point attempts in two games against Bowling Green, and that has to be a concern. For one thing, the two teams might well meet again in the MAC championship game, but also because Central Michigan is a very good 3-point shooting team against bad teams that suffers a significant drop-off -- more than might be expected -- from long range against good teams.

9. BYU (23-5, 13-4 WCC; projected seed: 12)


There probably still isn’t enough of a résumé for an NCAA tournament at-large bid, but the win against Gonzaga makes it worth having the conversation. A win this Saturday would give the Cougars season splits against all of the other WCC contenders, their only other loss a double-overtime rivalry game against Utah. The case is there for center Jennifer Hamson to earn All-American honors, but she’s not a one-woman show. Lexi Eaton is always a threat to score 20-plus points, and Kim Beeston had 27 points and nine assists in the most recent win.

10. Wright State (20-7, 9-3 Horizon; projected seed: No. 14)


The Horizon League is one of the more compelling races in the country, especially given the historical dominance of Green Bay and the reality that only one team is getting into the NCAA tournament. Wright State is currently tied atop the standings with Green Bay and Youngstown State and still has games against both teams, Thursday at home against Green Bay and next Wednesday at Youngstown State. This is a team with wins against NC State and James Madison, so its good can be pretty darn good. Junior Kim Demmings (22.8 ppg) has matured into a much more efficient star than the entertaining but erratic player who entered the league.

Next five: No. 11 Iona, No. 12 Albany, No. 13 Green Bay, No. 14 Pacific, No. 15 Saint Joseph's