Thursday, January 10, 2013

A rankings/game preview double-double

A huge Thursday night of action awaits so we're going to handle two (Larry) birds with one rock and combine this week's state rankings with a preview of tonight's - or in some cases, this weekend's --  games.

By the way, the first edition of the NCAA's official RPI released this week, shows that this state currently has five RPI Top 100 teams: Virginia (55), Richmond (66) Virginia Tech (75), Old Dominion (97) and Hampton (98).

1. Virginia (9-5, 0-2 ACC)
Last week: 1
RPI: 55
Thursday's game: at Georgia Tech (8-6, 1-2 ACC), 7 p.m.
This season is starting to shape up like last season for the Cavaliers, with a quality win early (Tennessee last season, Vanderbilt this year) and success over teams they should beat, but an inability to get over the hump against NCAA Tournament-caliber foes. As we all remember, the Cavs were among the last four teams left out of the big show. Virginia hasn't had a lot of success in Atlanta in recent years, but the Cavaliers simply must start beating teams like this for the 2012-13 season to end up the way they want. They'll need to control their turnover count, though. Georgia Tech typically forces a bunch of them, and the Cavaliers are averaging 19.0 turnovers per game (228th nationally), up from 14.3 last season (28th).

2. Richmond (9-6, 0-0 Atlantic 10)
Last week: 2
RPI: 66
Saturday's game: at St. Joseph's (9-5, 0-0 Atlantic 10), 2 p.m.
The Spiders won't lack for motivation in their A-10 opener, as the Hawks eliminated them from the conference tournament last year in the same Hagan Arena that will house this one. Furthermore, Richmond hasn't won in this building since 2007.

3. Old Dominion (10-3, 1-0 CAA)
Last week: 4
RPI: 98
Thursday's game: vs. Towson (6-6, 0-1), 7 p.m.
The Lady Monarchs are 18-1 lifetime against the Tigers, with the lone loss coming in a memorable overtime affair at the Constant Center during the 2009-10 season (In a tie game with seconds left in regulation, ODU's coaching staff mistakenly thought the team was ahead and instructed the players to bleed clock instead of attempting a game-winning shot.) With Sunday's stunning come-from-behind victory at Georgia State, the Lady Monarchs have already matched their victory total from all of the 2011-12 regular season (10). A victory in the CAA Tournament boosted that total to 11. We fully expect them to match that tonight --  and Sunday Delaware, with Elena Delle Donne, is on tap at the Constant Center.

4. Virginia Tech (7-7, 1-2 ACC)
Last week: 7
RPI: 75
Thursday's game: vs. Boston College (6-7, 0-2 ACC), 7 p.m.
Speaking of improved teams, with their 55-45 victory over Hampton on Dec. 30 the Hokies matched last season's win total (7) before 2013 even began. Losses by four points at Virginia and three points at nationally ranked North Carolina show just how competitive the Hokies have become since junior college transfer Uju Ugoka joined the fold. Now they just need to be able to make the kind of late-game plays necessary to come out on the good side on these close games.

5. Hampton (11-5, 2-0 MEAC)
Last week: 6
RPI: 97
Saturday's game: at Howard (7-6, 2-0 MEAC), 2 p.m.
The first of two meetings over a 16-day span - the teams face off again on Jan. 28 in Hampton - that could decide the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. Hampton is the three-time defending league champion, but Howard was the preseason choice to take the 2013 title. Given the stakes, Hampton's usually lights-out defense and the fact that both teams can struggle offensively, we're not expecting a ton of points from either side. And remember, Howard came within a missed putback of upending the Lady Pirates in last year's conference tournament final. But until someone in this league actually beats Hampton in a meaningful game, they're all still pretenders to the Lady Pirates' crown.

6. Liberty (11-5, 3-1 Big South)
Last week: 3
RPI: 113
Thursday's game: at Charleston Southern (5-7, 0-3 Big South), 7 p.m.
Didn't see last Thursday's home loss to improved Presbyterian coming - the Lady Flames were 9-0 lifetime against the Blue Hose - particularly since the Lady Flames were so dominant just five days prior in a 90-57 road rout of Winthrop. Our sense is this Liberty team has a higher ceiling - is more capable of beating supposedly better teams - than other Lady Flames teams of recent years but can also come out extremely flat. The good news is we don't see the latter happening against Charleston Southern.

7. James Madison (7-6, 1-0, CAA)
Last week: 7
RPI: 132
Thursday's game: vs. Drexel (8-4, 1-0 CAA), 7 p.m.
The Dragons squeezed the offensive life out of JMU twice last season, most notably during a 60-43 decision in the CAA Tournament semifinals. The Dukes simply have to find more effective ways to score against these guys. Drexel poses unique problems defensively, too, but JMU has been playing much better at that end lately. The Dukes are allowing just 41.5 points per game during their current four-game winning streak and haven't surrendered more than 49 points in any of the contests. Prior to this stretch, JMU was allowing 67.8 ppg and hadn't held anyone to fewer than 51. A softer schedule accounts for some of the difference, but it also signals a return to the kind of defensive efficiency that served the Dukes so well last season.

8. Longwood (6-8, 3-0 Big South)
Last week: 10
RPI: 192
Thursday's game: at Presbyterian (9-6, 4-0 Big South), 7 p.m.
Just like we figured, Longwood and Presbyterian unbeaten and playing for the outright Big South lead (yeah, right). Obviously three terrific opening salvos by the Lancers in their first year in the conference. It must be particularly exciting for seniors Chelsea Coward (15.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Crystal Smith (15.8 ppg), players who spent the past three seasons traveling the country essentially playing exhibitions this time of year as Longwood was an independent. But we're sure Coward, Smith and Co. aren't interested in taking bows at this point. After all, heck, they've got a conference title to try and win.

9. VCU (7-8, 0-0 Atlantic 10)
Last week: 8
RPI: 251
Saturday's game: at St. Louis (6-9, 0-0 Atlantic 10), 8 p.m.
The Rams have missed freshman guard Jessica Pellechio, who has sat out the last two games. Pellechio is averaging close to four 3-pointers per game; the Rams made just 1 of 14 3-pointers in their most recent game, a 58-45 loss to Youngstown State on Jan. 4.

10. Radford (6-8, 1-2 Big South)
Last week: 11
RPI: 273
Thursday's game: at Gardner-Webb (7-8, 0-4 Big South), 7 p.m.
The Highlanders need this one to keep contact with the conference leaders, and they should get it as perhaps no team has fallen so far so quickly than Gardner-Webb. The Runnin' Bulldogs are just 3-19 in Big South play since winning the conference tournament title in 2012. Of their seven wins this season, three came against non-Division I teams.

11. George Mason (5-7, 0-1 (CAA))
Last week: 9
RPI: 233
Thursday's game: at Delaware (9-3, 0-0 CAA), 7 p.m.
Obviously a tough assignment for the Patriots as Elena Delle Donne appears to be rounding into All-American form. The Patriots have lost two straight and five of their last six, but they did show some signs of offensive life in Sunday's 69-63 loss to Northeastern, first with a 39-point first half and then with a 14-6 spurt late when it looked as though they were about to be blown out.

12. William and Mary (2-11, 0-2 CAA)
Last week: 12
RPI: 325
Thursday's game: at Northeastern (8-4, 1-0), 7 p.m.
Tuesday's 61-52 loss to UNC Wilmington was the Tribe's eighth this season by single digits. William and Mary was fine during the guts of the contest, but surrendered a 12-0 run to open the game and an 11-0 spurt to close it. Just a frustrating season. This will be William and Mary's third conference game in five days.

13. Norfolk State (2-11, 0-2 MEAC)
Last week: 13
RPI: 339
Saturday's game: at Maryland-Eastern Shore (4-8, 0-2 MEAC), 2 p.m.
Here's hoping the nine-day break - the Spartans last played on Jan. 3 - re-energizes a group that hasn't beaten another Division I team since Nov. 9. If NSU isn't mentally beaten down, there's still enough talent here to compete with a lot of the teams in the MEAC.

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