Friday, January 2, 2015

Wrapping up non-conference play

With the non-conference schedules all but complete - Hampton will stick its head in the lion's mouth yet again Monday against Princeton (15-0), Norfolk State is at South Carolina Upstate Saturday and Richmond travels to Penn on Jan. 14 - this is a good time to take women's basketball inventory. So let's hand out some non-conference hardware:

Michael Jordan Award
(best individual performance, single game)

Rachel Camp, Virginia Tech
Tech's precocious freshman had already introduced herself as a Division I force when she dropped the following numbers on Western Carolina: 33 points (13-21 FG, 4-7 3FG, 4-4 FT), 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal, 0 turnovers. There won’t be more than a handful of cleaner performances by a guard anywhere in the country this season - certainly not by a freshman.

   Runner-up: Sarah Imovbioh went for 18 points (on 7-of-10 shooting), 24 rebounds and 3 blocks in a 32-minute tour-de-force during Virginia's 87-82 decision over Ohio State.

Don’t Blame Me Award
(best performance in a losing effort)

Rae Corbo, Norfolk State
Rae was Corbo the Magnificent on Dec. 16 against Marshall as she absolutely torched the Thundering Herd from three, in the mid-range and at the rim en route to a NSU Division I-record 37 points. Alas, some ill-timed defensive breakdowns and an inability to control the defensive boards and...voila! -  a 14-point second-half lead morphed into a 73-71 loss. But before ripping into the Spartans, consider this – as of Jan. 1 there were 24 games in which a player scored at least 37 points against Division I competition. In 10 of those games, the big-time scorer played on the losing team. So while the Spartans may have choked away Corbo's big night, at least they have plenty of company.

Straight Shooter Award
(most candid postgame comment)

“I don’t know what happened.” – Virginia’s Sarah Imovbioh, after the Cavaliers dropped the opener of their own tournament by 10 to Davidson.

Don't worry, Sarah. We were kinda scratching our heads about it, too.

Triplets Award
(best performance by one team’s “Big Three,” single game)

On Nov. 23 against Pittsburgh, JMU’s Precious Hall scored 34 points on 12-of-23 shooting, Lady Okafor added 15 points and 19 rebounds and point guard Muff Mickens chipped in 12 points and 13 assists. Bird, Parish and McHale – or for you Cowboy fans out there, Smith, Aikman and Irvin - would be proud.

Forever Young Award
(line that has joined“We take ‘em one game at a time” in the pantheon of worn-out coach’s clich├ęs)

“We're such a young team.”

Who said it?  Virtually every Division I coach in America

All-LadySwish team
(non-conference edition)

Precious Hall, JMU; Taylor Brown, George Mason, Sarah Imovbioh, Virginia; Rachel Camp, Virginia Tech; Malia Tate-DeFreitas, Hampton

Second five: Rae Corbo, Norfolk State; Lady Okafor, JMU; Jazmen Boone, William and Mary; Faith Randolph, Virginia; Jennie Simms, OId Dominion

12 impact freshmen

Rachel Camp, Virginia Tech; Mikayla Venson, Virginia; Kayla Roberts, Norfolk State; Tayler Dodson, George Mason; Janayla White, Radford; Jenna Green, William and Mary; Jada Worthy, Radford; Lauren Moses, Virginia; Aliyah Huland El, Virginia; Regan Magarity, Virginia Tech; Khadedra Croker, Virginia Tech; Abby Rendle, William and Mary
   - Magarity (14.0 ppg, 10.6 rpg) is out for the season (calf surgery)
   P.S. - The original title of this list was "Five impact freshmen." Couldn't decide between 5 and 6, then between 6 and 7.... Oh well, they've all had nice starts. We have it at five by season's end.

Best win

Virginia 87, Ohio State 82
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to choose from in this category, as Liberty’s win over Penn State (3-10) and JMU’s decision over UCLA (5-7) sound better than they actually are at this point.. And even this one comes with a bit of a caveat as the Cavaliers hosted a freshman-led, injury-riddled Buckeyes team at an ideal time (the season opener). But hey, a win is a win. And when you consider that Ohio State (9-5) just crushed No. 16 Rutgers, this one looks better by the day.

Worst loss

West Virginia State 58, Radford 52
Unfortunately, there are a few to choose from here, most notably Old Dominion’s overtime loss to Rider and Virginia’s meltdown against Davidson. But when you’re a Division I team and you lose on your home floor to a Division II squad that comes in with a losing record against D-II competition, well, Lady Monarchs, Cavaliers, you’re off the hook.

Most improved

A year ago, William and Mary picked up its sixth victory on Feb. 16. This season they shaved nearly two months off that pace, racking up six wins by Dec. 18 and beating three of their 2013-14 conquerors in the process. In addition, the Tribe's 6-5 record could actually be more like 8-3, as some shaky late-game execution resulted in William and Mary leaving at least two winnable games on the table. The Tribe will need to work that stuff out to take the next step, but assuming they do, William and Mary seems poised to shed years of mediocrity and re-join the ranks of the contenders.

Finally, here's our team-by-team report card for non-conference performance. Our grade guide - a team has to really do something special to get an A, and a team has got to really wet the bed to get a D or worse. In our view, neither of these things occurred for this state's teams in 2014.

JMU (9-2)
Grade - B-plus
The Dukes are what we thought they'd be - Top-25 caliber. But they missed opportunities to prove it to the rest of the free world by falling against Maryland and at Vanderbilt. There's obviously no shame in losing to either; it's just unfortunate the Dukes couldn't sync up their A game with one of these national powers. Maybe in March?

Radford (4-8, 3-6 non-conference)
Grade - B
The 2013-14 Highlanders didn't beat a Division I team until Jan. 16. Viewed in that context, the fact that this year's Highlanders had three such wins before Christmas can only be viewed as progress. 

Virginia (10-3)
All needling aside, we recognize that the Davidson loss, while humbling, was probably an aberration. Still, the Cavaliers went just 2-2 away from John Paul Jones Arena and flunked badly (86-63) in their only road test against an opponent approaching ACC level (Illinois). And while the December schedule (six straight home games) was shaped as a time for development, the head coach wound up missing a good chunk of it. So while the record looks good on its face, we're still not sure if this team's ready for the ACC gauntlet.

Virginia Tech (9-4)
Grade - C
Like Virginia, the Hokies pretty much handled home business against a manageable schedule as expected. Unlike Virginia, the Hokies don't really have a win against a team likely to finish anywhere close to the RPI Top 100.  They also went just 1-2 on the road. The loss of center Regan Magarity was a clear setback. And the Hokies weren't just beaten by Florida and Northwestern, they were manhandled. Tech has won five straight games since, though, so hopefully they'll be a more confident, cohesive and productive bunch when the schedule ratchets up again Sunday (vs. Virginia).

Norfolk State (2-9, 2-8 non-conference)
Grade - C-minus
The record would be a little better had the Spartans not snatched victory out of defeat's mouth a couple of times. Still, we learned that Rae Corbo is playing at a MEAC Player of the Year level and the Roberts sisters (freshman Kayla and sophomore transfer Nia) are significant additions. In short, the Spartans will live with the non-conference struggles if they can get things in order in conference play.

George Mason (8-5)
Grade - B
The Patriots opened with a bang by dropping Virginia Tech and have been consistently entertaining, if not always successful, ever since. As a result, a team that won just one Atlantic 10 regular season game last season looks poised to do considerably more league damage this time around.

William and Mary (6-5)
Grade - B-plus
See "Most Improved" comment above. The Tribe would have ventured into "A" territory had it sealed the deal against Maine and Richmond. 

Liberty (7-5, 4-5 non-conference)
Grade - C-minus
The Lady Flames did bring home some tournament hardware (Georgia State tourney champions), but this team has a lot of really good players - veteran players - and frankly, a 4-5 mark is a bit of a disappointment. Liberty has another level, or maybe even two levels, it can play at. We're that high on this group's potential.

Old Dominion (7-4)
Grade - C-plus
The Lady Monarchs did a nice job bagging away from home wins at Virginia Tech and on a neutral court vs. Illinois-Chicago and were solid for the most part at home. We'll even give them a bit of a mulligan for the embarrassing home loss to Rider. But the goal at Old Dominion is to have a program capable of being competitive anywhere. Blowout losses at Louisville and Cal showed these Lady Monarchs aren't at that level yet. 

VCU (9-4)
Grade - B
The Rams took some early road lumps - hardly unexpected with a new coach - but will head into Atlantic 10 play on a five-game winning streak. VCU is also 6-0 at home.

Hampton (5-8, 4-8 non-conference)
Grade - B-plus
As we've noted before, the NCAA rates Hampton's non-conference schedule the toughest in the country. In fact it's so tough that Hampton is the only team with a losing record in the RPI Top 50 (46). Unlike in previous years, this year's Hampton team featured a host of either new players, or veterans shifted into expanded roles. Under these circumstances, we wouldn't have been shocked if the Lady Pirates had gone through this schedule with zero non-league wins. That they claimed four, all in road/neutral site games, is a significant accomplishment. 

Richmond (8-4)
Grade - B
Solid - and symmetrical - start by the Spiders, who won their first three, dropped their next four and then ripped off five in a row heading into Sunday's Atlantic 10 at Fordham. It's funny, when we see Richmond play we think, they've got a lot of good players, but they don't have THE player, a star that makes it easier for everyone else. But they keep on winning, and we're reminded of why Michael Shafer is the coach and we're sitting behind keyboards.

Longwood (1-12, 0-10 non-conference)
Grade - Incomplete
Of the Lancers' 10 non-conference games, eight were on the road and five of those were against Power 5 conference schools. Add the fact that their two most productive players, Daeisha Brown and Khalilah Ali, went down early in the campaign with season-ending injuries and it doesn't seem fair to evaluate this team for its November and December efforts. This group can still make noise in the Big South.

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