Nothing whets my whistle like a good ole pre-conference tournament, especially when a chance to play at the MSG is on the line. These are where seasons can be made or broken. Knock off Syracuse in the Tip-Off Championship game, and the Cardinal will be well on their way to an at-large bid and a possible Top-25 ranking, provided they take care of the games they should with the bump up into that higher stratosphere of expectations. Lose to Fresno State on Monday night, and any chance at boosting their tourney resume with a solid non-conference goes out the window.
Tournaments like these are set up to guarantee as much as possible that the chosen host institutions make it to the destination round. The other three hosts (Syracuse, Oklahoma State, and Virginia Tech) have pretty soft pods, although George Mason could very easily knock off Virginia Tech and, as we know all too well, Oral Roberts can be a tough out for the Pokes.
Stanford's pod, however? The best overall group of mid-major opponents will be playing in Maples. For the sake of not spamming The Bootleg, let's take a quick look at all three teams that will be making their way to the Peninsula:
Fresno State (1-0)
The single-most burning question on my mind concerning the Central Cali Bulldogs is how to pronounce Kevin Olekaibe's last name. Fresno State provides the following phonetic spelling: O-lay-key-bay. I heard one announcer say O-LAY-key-bay, but I can't imagine it actually being pronounced like that. The way the last name naturally rolls off my tongue is more like O-leh-KEE-bay. Not a HUGE emphasis on the third syllable, but enough to garner All-CAPS accolades. Think I'll just talk to Nick Matson (Fresno State's grad assistant who spent a year with the Stanford staff) tomorrow and get the pronunciation out of him.
Anyway, Fresno State is Stanford's first opponent. The Bulldogs are coming off a down year in which they went 14-17 and 6-10 in the WAC, resulting in Steve Cleveland stepping down as the Big Bossman. So in steps Rodney Terry, a longtime Rick Barnes assistant finally getting his shot at a head coaching gig. He loses two of the Bulldogs' three leading scorers from a year ago, but he returns the leading point-getter- Kevin O-lay-key-bay, or O-LAY-key-bay, or O-leh-KEY-bay. This dunk over New Mexico State's Tshilidzi Nephawe (I won't try to phonetically spell either of his names) made me follow Olekaibe on twitter: Dunk!.
The Rodney Terry era got off to a good start with a 55-47 win over Illinois State on Friday night at the Save-Mart Center. It was Olekaibe who led the ‘Dogs to victory by scoring 14 of his 18 points in the second-half and connecting on a three-point play with a minute left to seal the deal. To me, the Redbirds are one of those Monet mid-majors. They sound tough and appear good from afar because they play in the Missouri Valley, but when you look at them up close, you realize not much is there (they finished 12-19 and 4-14 in the MVC last year and are picked to finish 8th in the Valley this year). So I wouldn't call this one a great victory for Fresno State.
Stanford should win this one with relative comfort, but then again, Fresno State played our 2007-08 Sweet 16 team tough, only losing to Lopi and Friends by seven points. So we'll see.
SMU Mustangs (1-0)
Remember when Matt Doherty was one of the hottest coaches in college basketball (I don't mean "hottest" as in "attractive", though if you are a heterosexual female or homosexual male reader, perhaps you do have the hots for him)? That's certainly not the case anymore after things didn't work out for him in Chapel Hill, and it has taken him a while in Texas, but he has breathed new life into an SMU program that hasn't made the NCAA's since 1993 (remember the name John Shumate? I don't). The hardwood version of the Pony Express went 8-8 in a tough C-USA and won 20 games for the first time in more than a decade en route to a CIT appearance, losing to eventual CIT-champion Santa Clara in the semi-finals.
They do lose Papa Dia, their leading scorer in 2010-11, and there are seven freshmen on the team (five of them true freshmen) as opposed to three seniors. However, one of those seniors is Robert Nyakundi, who is a candidate for C-USA POTY after averaging more than 14 points per game last year and connecting on 49.7% of his longballs, which was second in the NCAA.
Their lone game thus far was against McMurry, a 78-49 decision in favor of the Mustangs. You will hear me say this every time I happen to mention such an occurrence on The Bootleg, but nothing pisses me off more than when Division I schools face non-Division I opponents. I understand that scheduling non-conference games can be extremely difficult, but these games are meaningless. Not "meaningless" like games casual fans wouldn't give a damn about, but "meaningless" like meaningless: games against non-Division I opponents aren't counted for or against a team's RPI.
So why do it other than to rack up an easy win? I am a little more forgiving with SWAC, MEAC, Southland and other low-major conferences where trying to get home games in the non-conference slate is next to impossible, but a C-USA school, in my opinion, has no excuse for this. Sure, McMurry might be an in-state "rival", but that's what FREAKING EXHIBITION GAMES ARE FOR - to give lower-level local schools or non-Division I schools with ties to the host program the chance to play on the same court.
Please, next time just label it as an exhibition or find a Division I opponent to play. Independents are always looking for dates. Here's a list of them for any D-I scheduler who needs ideas: Longwood (shout out to Lancer AD Troy Austin, who made the trip with their field hockey team to the NorPac Tournament in Palo Alto earlier this month. Great guy), Seattle (though they are headed to the WAC next year), Cal State Bakersfield and Nebraska-Omaha. Maybe not the sexiest quartet, but at least they are qualified to play a full season's worth of games at this level.
Done venting for the moment, but I guarantee you that's not the last you will hear from me on that subject. I don't think Stanford will see SMU on Tuesday, but I suck at predictions when I put it on print or over the airwaves. You will just have to take my word that when I make predictions in my head, I am usually dead-on. But my only guarantee this year is that I will probably be wrong on a lot of my guarantees (reverse jinx?).
Colorado State Rams (1-0)
The Rams are why I don't think the Mustangs will be Stanford's next opponent should the Cardinal win. Colorado State is a SOLID. Tim Miles is DOIN' WORK in Fort Collins. He took over a program that was absolutely horrendous and took them to the CBI in his third season and the NIT in his fourth (last year). So I guess the natural progression would be for Miles to send the Rams to their first NCAA tournament since being a 14-seed in 2003 and losing to Duke in the first round.
That jump won't be so easy this year, playing in a tough Mountain West that features New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State and losing their top two scorers from last year in Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin. Losing Ogide will especially hurt because of his size (six feet, nine inches), ability to stretch defenses and willingness to throw ‘dem ‘bows with the Jimmer (check about a minute in): Jimmer.
Their season got off to a good start with a solid 64-58 victory over Montana, a traditional Big Sky power picked to finish second in their league this year. Wes Eikmeyer, an Iowa State transfer, led the way with 21 points. He's not the only BCS talent they have, either. Colton Iverson comes to Fort Collins via Tubby Smith and Daniel Bejarano sends his regards to Sean Miller (the Arizona transfer will have to sit out this year).
This team worries me a bit, assuming it is indeed Stanford vs. Colorado State for the Maples Pod Title. This won't be an easy game for the Card, which is good in many ways, but at this point, I'd rather have to face some scrub squad to ensure ourselves a couple of tilts in Manhattan.
Could be a tough couple of games ahead for Stanford in the House That Roscoe Built. All three teams are considerably above the "guarantee game" level that a Central Arkansas is at. We won't be winning by 39 on Monday or Tuesday night, but if all goes according to plan and seed, Johnny Dawkins' boys will be spending Thanksgiving on the East Coast.
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